Cablevision is moving ahead with aggressive plans to roll out a network DVR (what the company calls RS-DVR, for "remote storage") to customers just one month after a federal appeals court ruled that the technology was legal. If the technology takes off, it could mean one less box sitting beneath the TV. It could also mean that cable operators will be in control of the DVR's hardware and functionality, making the behavior of such devices more susceptible to pressure from content owners.
The legal wrangling over the case might not yet be over (it's possible that an appeal to the Supreme Court could be made), but Cablevision plans to deploy its RS-DVR in early 2009 unless a court challenge emerges. Speaking this week at a Merrill Lynch conference in California, Cablevision's Tom Rutledge spelled out the news. "We won a monumental case and all the things that we thought we could do, the court agreed with, so we're ready to go to market with that product," he said, according to Light Reading.
And Multichannel News, which also had a reporter in attendance, goes on to quote Rutledge as committing to a beta test. "Technically we’ll be doing a real consumer trial in the relatively near future," he said. "Early next year we will go to market with a set of products that rely on our fair use that we won in that case."
Cablevision's decision to move so quickly in the wake of the court case will probably have other cable companies following its lead. Time Warner has publicly expressed interest in the technology, and Comcast tells us that it's looking into the technology but has made no decisions on a rollout.
Moving the DVR into the "cloud"—what's essentially happening here from a consumer point of view—will bring all the benefits of that model: fewer hardware issues, fewer truck rolls, easy upgradeability, etc. But life in the cloud can also get rainy, a point made by Jonathan Zittrain when I spoke with him a few months ago about his new book, The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It. One of his points was that decentralized, untethered systems (a DVR in every living room, for instance) can be difficult for outside parties to affect. Even winning a court case may not be enough to change current device behavior once machines are in the field; a legal ruling can affect new devices rolling off the assembly line, but consumers who already have a box sitting at home can't be touched.
But once the devices answer to centralized servers—as many DVRs do, in order to get firmware upgrades and TV schedules—rightsholders and law enforcement both have a single point of control on which to impose their collective will. A win in court could force a company like TiVo to push out a certain upgrade, disable a certain feature, change the way the device first worked when people decided to drop their cash on it. Moving the entire apparatus into the network makes this even simpler, as consumers no longer have access even to the hardware and can't disconnect its network cable or take other measures to refuse an update. Total control of hardware and software passes to one easily-sued entity.
Still, Aunt Doris probably doesn't care much about the possible downsides, especially given all the benefits. Her network DVR will always work, will never break or need maintenance, requires no hookup, and takes no space in the entertainment unit.
Verizon and AT&T are also tinkering with similar ideas (see this Seeking Alpha post for a quick summation), but they have approached the network DVR idea from a "whole house" perspective in which the actual recording gear stays on the customer premises. Legally, this has kept them out of trouble, but if Cablevision's rollout doesn't attract additional legal challenges form rightsholders, it's a good bet that AT&T and Verizon will take the next logical step and simply consolidate all of this infrastructure in local offices.Posted on