Giz Explains: CableCARD and the Future of Cable TV

The big bad cable industry is under assault. The internet is stealing viewers who can check out their favorite shows on Hulu while fiber and IPTV deliver speed and features they can't quite match. Yet. A new cable internet standard rolling out this year will let them catch up speedwise. To battle the dizzying array of possibilities IPTV offers, the cable industry has its own white knight: Tru2way, a new kind of CableCARD that will deliver real interactive features to cable subscribers, and kill the loathed cable box in the process.

Tru2way is actually the brand name for a common Java-based middleware stack and software platform (aka OpenCable, aka OCAP) that'll be supported across the entire cable industry (all the majors like Comcast and Time Warner others are way onboard). Hardware comes into play by way of CableCARD, the little card you can plug into your TiVo (or whatever) to get cable on it without a set-top box. It decrypts the encrypted signal the cable company sends out.

Up until now CableCARD has had some problems: It was meant to replace your set-top box, but besides crappy industry support, it was missing stuff like the programming guide and VOD. Tru2way aims to fulfill the original promise. Not only will tru2way be in half of all actual cable boxes by 2013 according to ABI Research-Time Warner already has a million boxes out there-TV manufacturers like Panny, Sammy and Sony are building tru2way sets that won't need cable boxes. (ABI principal analyst Steve Wilson tells us that Sony's agreement is particularly important in pushing tru2way forward, since it got the cable operators to agree to the same set of specs and common goals, like a full rollout by 2009.) So tru2way isn't vaporware-it's not a butter smooth road, but you will probably see it fairly soon(ish).

The biggest tru2way advantage for consumers is that the box becomes an option based on the capability of your TV. You'll finally get the program guide, VOD and other advanced features with a tru2way TV, without a black behemoth next to it. And, as is implied in the name, it allows two-way communication, something older CableCARD devices couldn't do. That means cable operators can offer a lot of the same interactive features as AT&T's U-verse IPTV service. Since it's a common platform for all cable operators, a developer's app that works for Time Warner will work for Comcast and vice versa, no messy porting required. And it's just Java, so there's not much of a learning curve, paving the way for lots of innovative apps (if the cable co. allows them), not to mention the obvious like local weather widgets, voting, news, RSS. ABI's Steve Wilson also mentioned an on-TV caller ID app similar to AT&T's.

The major catch is that this requires new hardware, either a new box (from the cable company) or a new TV (from you wife's pension fund). Cable dudes are going to cycle to the new boxes gradually, not replace them all at once, and that will take some time. Also, don't expect these wonderful new services to be wonderfully free, Wilson tells us. The super-sweet stuff is going to be part of higher-tiered services that are probably gonna cost you. And the boxes themselves might be pricey. There will lower levels with more basic interactivity, but those cheap-o boxes will have a slower rollout. (Though it'll be hastier in markets invaded by FiOS and U-verse according to Wilson.)

So, while CableCARD and tru2way aren't going to invade the country overnight, the way most people watch TV-even if they actually still sit on a couch in front of an actual boob tube-is going to change significantly in the next couple of years. But it's not like they have much of a choice anymore. Even now, people (mostly young whippersnappers) are changing the way they watch TV, whether or not the cable companies and telecoms go along. Time to evolve... or die.