IEEE 1394 vs. UDCP

I have been exchanging a couple of emails with Ray Maker, a fellow ‘Softie, regarding whether IEEE 1394 recording is an “enthusiast” feature or more mainstream.  I am of the opinion that it stands a good chance of being mainstream, and Ray thinks it more of a tech-enthusiast feature.

I agree that whether 1394 goes mainstream depends a great deal on how much the UDCP (Unidirectional Digital Cable Product — in this case a decoder) devices will cost the consumer as compared to what they can lease STBs from (for example) Comcast.  Just a rough guess, based on currently-available HDTV QAM tuners (like the FusionHDTV5 and MyTV MDP-130), I’d say the extra CableCARD hardware and crypto chip(s) would add $25 – $50 in price, which translates to a retail price per UDCP of $200 – $250, with wholesale landing at about $150 – $175.  For the retail consumer who already has a “Tuner Ready” Media Center PC, it would take from a year to 2 years to amortize those costs, depending on the deal they got and the cost of leasing a CableCARD from their cable provider.  [Disclaimer: I do not have any “inside” knowledge on how much UDCPs actually cost, and all of my estimates are based on publicly-available photos of UDCP units]

I don’t have any hard figures for what an UDCP would cost a large OEM like Dell or HP, so I’ll pull some figures out of a hat and perhaps a diligent reader can correct me.  I figure they will get massive discounts on UDCPs due to their buying power, so for the purposes of this dicussion let’s say they can get them at the same price they currently sell dual analog tuners: $150.  To get the price of a machine under $1000 and include tuners, you get a machine with integrated audio (DD7.1, so that’s passable), a Radeon X300 SE PCIe card (not great for gaming, but it can do HDTV), DVD burner, 160 GB drive, 512 MB RAM, and a 3.0 GHz Pentium 4.  That’s not a bad deal, but if you free up that $150, you can upgrade to an X600, upgrade to a 250 GB drive, and double your RAM.  In the cutthroat business of high-volume computer sales, I can see that being a tantalizing siren call.  The sub-$1000 price point is the “sweet spot”, and OEMs will go to great lengths to squeeze under it.

Consumers will have a choice that rings familiar: go for the lump sum payment up front, or lease from their TV service provider.  I deliberately did not say “cable company”, because there’s another twist: satellite providers.  It’s guaranteed that UDCP will not be compatible with satellite service, unless they suddenly decide to start broadcasting in QAM ::rimshot::.  Cable companies like the thought of anything that makes their service “sticky”, especially given how un-sticky it is at the moment.  For that matter, satellite companies are after the same thing, but history has proven that it’s hard to keep customers when the competition has a better value proposition.  Both of the major U.S. satellite providers (Hughs/DirecTV and Echostar/Dish) now offer competitive upgrades from cable and the other satellite company, not to mention the N months free you get when you switch. All of this points up the advantage of having a portable connection to your TV provider.  The FCC has mandated (see page 124)  that all cable companies must provide STBs with 1394 connections, but satellite providers are not included in the order.  DirecTV has not (and says it will not) made 1394 available on its receivers, and I haven’t seen any Dish/VOOM boxes with it.  [Update: The DirecTV deal inked with Microsoft recently means that DirecTV will have their own version of a UDCP-style device as well, but 1394 is unlikely.]

Faced with either $15 – $20 / month for renting 2 STB-based tuners, or $400 – $500 for 2 UDCPs, I can see a lot of folks going for 1394.  Of course, the UDCPs may come down in price at some point, which would make that a nicer pill to swallow.  If 1394 is portable between multiple, competing providers, it only becomes more attractive.

Then again, IEEE 1394’s paltry 400 Mbps bandwidth can’t handle more than 20 ATSC-level streams at once, so perhaps it won’t scale up like DVI can. >_>

Comments (7)

  1. Brian Hoyt says:

    The FCC has mandated 1394 for HD STB, however I haven’t seen anything clear on HD DVR boxes. Do you think the cable companies may be able to get around the 1394 requirement via that route. The first question is why they would do this, simply to lock you or some other competitor like TiVo out of competing with their DVRs. The second question becomes why wouldn’t a customer just get a standard HD STB instead of DVR? In the near future there may no longer be any non-DVR boxes, the cost to add a HDD is falling rapidly and would be offset by no longer maintaining two sets of inventories I would think.

  2. Chuck says:

    from what i read and understand the FCC has mandated all cable companies to have firewire on their boxes. It’s also my understanding they are forbiding cable companies to change the resolution of HDTV broadcasts. So to me if the consumer friendly Firewire connection is mandatory than it seems like a no brainer that a consumer friendly company like Microsoft would put some time and attention to this workaround. If they did, i bet you’d see Cable labs become a little more consumer friendly as well. After all the game is all about getting eyeballs watching content. As it currently stands Hollywood holds all the cards and doesn’t mind the foot dragging that has been going on with cablecard.

    the company that gives the consumer what they want first (HDTV DVR) will win the war. Hopefully MCE will be the one with it, but the open source linux crowd and Apple are nipping on their heals.

  3. Jaan Kold jaank (at) weird- solutions dot com says:

    Don’t forget us in Europe!

    I hope you realize that we would _really_ benefit from your idea too.

    Maybe even easier that the US would:

    Even though we normally don’t get a firewire-enabled STB’s by default, they are available. (UPC uses Motorola STBs with a firewire port) But even more interesting is – if you indeed did put the effort into supporting firewire, you immediately provide a solution to the vast users of DVB (=Digital TV) users woldwide, regardless if it’s over Cable, Terrestrial and Sat. (-C/-T/-S)

    The reason for that is the core standardized system is already in place:

    PC-Card sized encryption modules (=CAM) and our subscription sim (key)cards.

    As it stands, most often (but not always) we’re free to buy a standard DVB tuner (-C/-T/ or -S variant) and plug in an appropriate decryption module (similar to your upcoming CableCard I think?) and a subscription sim-card. You fix the firewire support and we’re basically in the clear.

    I’m in Sweden with a Digital TV subscription over cable (aka: DVB-C) I have a PC-connected firewire enabled tuner, that is currently unusable inside my MCE-shell, but it works just fine outside of course. All that is missing is for MCE to accept the firewire feed. (Channel changing would be a bonus! 🙂

    I hope you persue your idea, Peter. You are very, very much on the right track.