The set-top box: the Rasputin of home electronics

The set-top box, for over 30 years a fixture in the home entertainment center, won't be going away anytime soon, despite the often strident predictions of those who apparently don't understand the viewing public.

Like Rasputin, the box has been stabbed, shot and poisoned and has suffered sundry other indignities, but it keeps coming back into a spot of honor somewhere in the vicinity of the television set. Perhaps, like Rasputin, the only way to end a set-top box is to drown it; or maybe blow it up.

Just this week there were reports that a Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) IPTV set-top box was making (or had made) the rounds through the FCC and that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) TV was about to get a pair of new units from Netgear (Nasdaq: NTGR) and Asus. And, of course, there have been reports that Pace Plc (LSE: PIC.L), the one-time on-the-outside-looking-in cable set-top, was doing bang-up business in the United States. Just as an afterthought and with a nod to Comcast, incidentally, the terms bang-up and set-top should probably not be connected.

Anyway, PCs and laptops were supposedly the first devices that would shoot down the set-top. It survived the assault. Video games supposedly mortally wounded set-tops when they began including the ability to tap online video--and more--when not playing games. Set-tops hardly felt an itchy scratch. And, of course, tablets, smartphones and the ability to watch TV Everywhere were expected to spoon feed the final poison that would have set-top boxes gasping their last breaths. To paraphrase Alex Baldwin, what do you have in your living room?

Admittedly, the set-top has morphed. Newer units are probably less inclined to be all-inclusive mini-computers and more inclined to be slaves to a media server. But they still dominate a television that now has more brains than people think it needs.

It's easy to argue that a set-top box is like that guest who seemingly doesn't know it's time to leave. On the other hand, there is a certain element to the set-top that gives it the utility of a handy neighbor who drinks too much but can install a garbage disposal when the old one breaks.

The old joke about the blinking light on a VCR that couldn't be programmed speaks more to the consumer's unwillingness to expend effort than it does about an inability to understand technology. My guess is that nearly everyone knew how to set that clock; it was just too much hassle. The same thing goes for set-tops. Yeah, it's possible to hook up gaming devices and Blu ray players and laptops and tablets and smartphones and even smart TVs to watch video. But it's easier to just let someone else--the MVPD--handle the job with a set-top box.

The set-top isn't surviving because it's something anyone wants. It's had a long life because it serves a purpose. When it's not exploding, it just makes life a little easier. Watching television isn't brain surgery, even though it probably does kill brain cells; why make it harder than it needs to be? -Jim