Several web sites on the Internet (and just about the entire Mac community) has been chattering today about the revealing of an Apple TV DVR patent. This is something that is not new news in the slightest, and I’ll de-bunk where it came from (again).
Unfortuantely, I knew this was coming at some point… which is partly why I derived past posts to make mention of the Apple TV DVR… so that when this day came, you’d already know where it came from.
But, it has been awhile… so I’ll get right to where this all started. Back when Apple TV was in development, it originally was designed to work as a DVR. But, instead of having a dependency on cable operators, Apple turned to its roots and found a technology it could leverage… FireWire.
Originally, Apple TV had a FireWire port, which the user would plug in to a cable box. As you may know, cable operators are required to issue digital boxes with 1394-enabled (FireWire-enabled) upon a user’s request. It’s a little-known good deed the FCC implemented, and few consumers have taken on (mostly because HDMI replaced the need for FireWire as a display port for HDTV units).
So what happened? Well, the cable operators got wise to Apple’s plans, and worked to lock them out. Essentially, they disabled the FireWire port on their receivers, via firmware. I personally got involved in this, and worked with the 1394 Trade Association to put an end to this (by going to the FCC and demanding action… as well as going to the cable operators and reminding them of that). About six months before Apple TV came out, we were successful, and firmware updates were quietly pushed out to the wounded units.
Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. Apple, faced with consumer frustration over this (had they added the feature), scrapped the DVR functionality completely from the device… along with the FireWire port. That was a key mistake, in my view, since Apple TV Take 2 firmware could have added DVR once the problems with cable operators were resolved.
So, could Apple pick this functionality back up? They could, but I don’t know if they will. First, Apple has pretty much become stale to the notion of using FireWire as a consumer application. To them, FireWire is dead to the consumer. Notice, it’s even missing from the MacBook Air.
Now, the software is still ready to go. The DVR.framework is stable. Apple could unleash that on the consumer in various ways… a cable-operator-branded version of Apple TV for example. Or, releasing a low-cost array of QAM, CableCARD, and Satellite receivers to enable Mac (and Apple TV, via that USB 2.0 port) to function as a DVR as well.
The possibility is still there, but the drive to follow-through is what isn’t.
It is probably for the best – the FireWire port is an incomplete solution that would probably lead to customer frustration. It is fine – some channels are usually protected with DTCP (aka 5C). So, unless Apple did something to be allowed to record DTCP-protected content, they’d have the same issue as existing PC-FireWire recording software.
True to a point, but it still would have matched Microsoft’s current offering in Media Center. A standard Media Center system can only record SDTV unencrypted channels and OTA HD/digital channels. Now, you can buy an overpriced CableCARD system… but I don’t see that as a compelling offering to compete with Apple TV (something you add to your existing setup).
But yes, 5C was the other half of the equation… before Apple TV went into development, 5C was used a lot less heavily… many cable providers reserved it just for premium channels (HBO, etc).
However, once Apple TV surfaced, providers started to 5C all but local channels. The ones in violation of FCC mandate sometimes 5C’ed even over-the-air channels, which was a clear FCC violation. Others blocked the port via firmware.
Had the law been upheld by the cable operators though, Apple would have been able to ensure at least over-the-air HDTV and SDTV (non-digital) access… which would have made Apple TV a much more compelling initial offering, and a true Media Center answer.