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A Brief History of Set-Top Box Innovation

Given all the recent and turbulent attention on “innovation,” as it relates to set-top boxes and IP gateways, I’d like to provide some industrial context. As a company involved in set-top and IP gateway innovation for almost half a century, we certainly have an informed viewpoint. After all, set-top boxes are a core part of our video DNA.

Let’s briefly review the innovation chronology for the cable set-top box. The original function of a set-top box - back when they were called “converter boxes,” in the early 1980s - was to convert an incoming channel so it could be watched on the TV.

Another big chapter was called addressability: The ability to remotely control a box’s ability to descramble and tune premium channels. Then came the “advanced analog” box, so named because it contained enough memory and graphics resources  to accept downloaded features, like an on-screen display, volume control, virtual text channels, a sleep timer, parental locks, reminder messages, multi-lingual displays.

In the mid 1990′s the industry took the big leap to digital video compression, and the first digital set-tops. Initial benefit: More channels -- Ten video streams could fit into the space of one analog TV channel. High Definition TV later followed with HD set-tops, which brought much higher video quality. Next came digital video recorders, which gave rise to the mass adoption of time-shifted television, with thousands of hours of on-demand content, in both standard and high definition. And let’s not forget caller ID on TV, multi-room and whole home DVR, and EBIF-based interactivity, all in various stages of rollout by service providers today.

The next chapter in innovation for set-tops, or gateways, or whatever name they switch to, will be anchored in IP. A smart end-terminal (the gateway), connected to smart networks (HFC to CDN), for a seamless presentation of video content to all different screen types - TV, PC, handheld.

Cisco ISB6000 HD-DVR Series for telcosThe move to an IP video strategy is helping our service provider customers evolve their networks to a “medianet,” a media-centric network that offers consumers a Connected Life experience where video becomes accessible whenever they want it,  on multiple devices. Our newest models of set-top boxes support rich media to deliver an interactive user experience. Our next-gen 8600 HD-DVR series for cable operators and ISB6000 HD-DVR Series for telcos offer significantly more processing power to support new video features, including whole-home media sharing, video content access between the Internet and TV, and increased storage capacity.  We offer our customers choice in terms of added technological capabilities - including WiFi options, home networking features and an applications framework.

Cisco continues to be the #2 set-top supplier in the world for cable and wireline service providers. We were recently cited by Infonetics Research as the #1 provider of “pure IP set-tops.”  The set-top box business is a good business, and is a big part of Cisco’s video strategy. With the shift to IP networks having firmly taken hold, we look forward to continuing partnerships with our customers to make innovative video opportunities possible for consumers.

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