Q&A with David Grubb, CTO, Motorola's Home Business

It's well documented that the cable industry is dominated by a set-top box duopoly of Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Motorola (NYSE: MOT). As CTO of Motorola's Home and Networks Mobility Business, David Grubb has a firsthand view of what this means to his company, his customers, and cable subscribers. Grubb, though, also has a historical perspective on the set-top business. He started his career with what was then the Jerrold Division of General Instrument Corp.--even then a member of a set-top box duo with Oak (Scientific Atlanta was an up-and-comer). Over the past 28 years he has grown up with the cable industry while moving through a variety of technical and-for brief periods-marketing positions with GI and, after its acquisition, Motorola.

David Grubb, MotorolaRecently Grubb provided his insights to FierceCable editor Jim Barthold during a, for the most part, pleasant conversation, that started awkwardly when Grubb disavowed knowledge of Cablevision Systems' (NYSE: CVC) commitment to Samsung as a next-generation set-top box maker and ended with his five-year vision for Motorola and the cable industry.

FierceCable: So Dave, is the set-top duopoly finally under threat as everyone seems to think? The news that Cablevision Systems was committed to Samsung boxes--and the further inference that these boxes will shatter the Moto-Cisco market dominance--seems to indicate that things are changing.

Grubb: We see a number of robust competitors in the set-top environment, although I can't really comment on Cablevision's purchasing choices. At the end of the day we focus on delivering a compelling user experience. We tend to drive our road maps around features that we think will drive compelling services for the end consumer and then work with our customers to bring those to market.

FC: At least for now, with Moto and most of the cable industry, that market appears to run on an equipment leasing model. When do consumers get a shot at purchasing their cable set-tops at the local retail store?

David Grubb, MotorolaGrubb: It's not clear that consumers want to buy set-top boxes. After all, there are a lot of advantages to getting the set-top from whoever your service provider is. It's not obvious and we certainly haven't seen strong indicators that there's a strong demand to own the set-top box.

FC: That's different than the high-speed data world where owning the modem is de rigueur.

Grubb: There's been a good market for retail delivery of modems in large part because they were able to be subsidized to the point of being net free after rebates. Free is a good price point, especially for something like high-speed data that was an emerging application.

FC: Motorola is also involved with selling smartphones--again, devices that at least touch the retail space.

Grubb: Motorola Mobility is more of a consumer-focused business. We may sell set-tops through service providers but at the end of the day they're there to deliver consumer experiences. The same can be said of smartphones.

FC: Shifting gears ever so slightly, does Motorola have an advantage in the TV Everywhere space because of your multiple product lines? What are you developing to bring together the multiple screens and formats?

Motorola MoverGrubb: We've been focused on a product called the Mover which is a way to take your home experiences and make them portable by transcoding concept that the consumer is recording on their DVR in their home. We also have some software products through our Medios solution that enable service providers to manage large content libraries and create mobile versions. We have a few devices that we're bringing to market to support the idea of TV Everywhere.

FC: Along that same vein, are plays like Apple TV and Google TV both encroaching on cable and your business and potentially providing you with yet another opportunity to sell boxes?

Grubb: We see things like Apple TV as competitors for our customers. Our focus is on bringing new experiences to the table for our operator customers so they can be more compelling than the Apple TV box and the consumer won't feel a need to go buy that.

FC: So you're not allying with Apple but you sell products to Verizon (NYSE: VZ) which also competes with cable. Where do you draw the line?

Grubb: Verizon is a service provider customer. Our perspective is on video service providers.

FC: Every panel session always seems to end with a moderator asking for a five-year view. With how quickly things are changing these days, that seems a little silly. How about a one-year view?

Grubb: Despite your one-year view, my job is to think about the five years. I'm CTO; I'm not the product development guy.

FC: OK, what's happening five years out?

David Grubb, MotorolaGrubb: A big topic in the industry is the shift to IP for video delivery. Then I would say the other big topic which aligns well with our organizational structure is the move to multi-screen experiences.

FC: IP's already a big part of a cable system. How tough can it be to add IP video?

Grubb: There's a massive amount of content that's delivered using the wonders of HFC with separate channels through all the QAM channels that go to the home. Think about a downstream pipe with 110 downstream channels; you might only have two or four of those running IP content over DOCSIS and 106 are delivering video. It is a massive shift.

FC: And what's the second part of your five year vision?

Grubb: We see this move to IP as part of a bigger shift to what we call the Internet Era of TV. Some of the underlying technology is there but it is a significant platform shift, kind of like the move from analog to digital.

FC: OK, the one disrupter to any five-year plan is the economy. You probably don't want to talk about it, but how is the economy affecting Moto's plans?

Grubb: You're right. I don't want to answer that question.