Boxing match: everybody seems to want to get into the set-top game

Three big players--Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)--all want to get into a business that has--over the years--devoured the likes of Zenith, RCA, Magnavox, Panasonic (NYSE: PC) and Sony (NYSE: SNE), among other electronics giants.

Let's look at the latest news on the three pretenders, er, contenders …

Intel wants to put its chips in set-top boxes again, just as it did at the dawn of the digital age in 1991-1992 when it tried to broker entry via General Instrument and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT). That trio aligned with TCI in an effort to rule digital but it never happened because the rest of the cable industry showed backbone, fought for a digital standard which would become MPEG, and created at least a set-top duopoly of GI and Scientific-Atlanta.

Next up is Google--or, as we old-timers like to call them--Googlerola because they've just officially swallowed Motorola Mobility which, Ancestry.com will tell you was the direct descendant of General Instrument, which was begat by Next Level Communications which was begat by General Instrument (weird thing there with names) which was begat, way back before there was a cable industry, by Jerrold Electronics.

The Google move to build an Android box makes sense, set-tops being little more than mission-specific computers these days. The likelihood is that somewhere along the line, Google will build an Android box with Motorola know-how that cable operators will denounce and defile and finally accept because, after all, an open Android is better than a closed …

Apple, the last piece in the set-top slugfest, has long wanted to do for television what it did for music and phones and tablets--control it with a cute device that everyone just has to rush to Best Buy and buy.

Television is a different beast, though, and it will be harder for Apple to take a bite there if the programmers, either allied with cable or owned by cable, decide to wire its jaws shut. While multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) now appear to accept iPads and iPhones, an Apple intrusion into their core broadband triple play business with a TV app would no doubt be a different story.

It's already painful to watch the two-step the cable guys are doing with Apple; a TV app would likely cause the cable guys to waltz away, leaving Apple with an over-the-top play and a dearth of content to deliver.

Of course the big names involved in each of these scenarios make it difficult to believe something isn't going to happen. But if you have a mortgage to bet, put it on something more reliable: like roulette. - Jim Barthold

 

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