Pat Pilcher: Rumour mill set ablaze around Intel TV set top box

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Intel president and CEO Paul Otellini. File Photo / AP
Intel president and CEO Paul Otellini. File Photo / AP

As the biggest player in the PC market, Intel came close to missing the boat as Apple and rival chipmakers leapt into the smartphone and tablet fray. This time around Intel look set to hit the mark in what could be the next big thing, and in doing so also stand to beat Apple to the punch.

So what's all the fuss about? The tech sector rumour mill is ablaze with rumours around the chip making giant working on a TV set top box that could transform the way TV is delivered to consumers.

The rumoured Intel set top box is said to be able to deliver TV shows to any device that can access the Internet. But the real kicker is that instead of paying a set fee for a bundle of channels (many of which you're never likely to want to watch, let alone pay for), consumers will be able to pick and choose which individual channels they want to fork out their hard earned cash for. The current scuttle-butt has it that the set top box will be announced at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and will be made available as a limited beta trial in March 2013.

If these rumours do prove to be true, their implications are breath-taking. Being able to place shift (e.g. play back recorded content anywhere with an internet connection rather than just in your lounge) could be as much of a revelation as the ability to time-shift (e.g. pause live TV etc) TV shows was when hard drive DVRs first hit the market. The Internet has made the world a very small place and being able to stream a TV show online could see broadcasting along geographic borders rapidly becoming a quaint but outmoded practice. The good news is that this could see content creators and TV networks moving to get rid of annoying time lags in airing more popular shows amidst fears that piracy could otherwise accelerate.

Equally revolutionary are the rumoured Cloud recording/storage features. This would see shows stored centrally on a remote data centre and as such would allow Intel set top box owners to watch a show, even if it hadn't been recorded by them. This would of course have huge implications for local broadcasters - Many of whom who could rapidly become the TV broadcasting equivalent of a fifth wheel as the big networks (who own most of the big ticket content) fill the data centre with a growing amount of shows that would be able to be viewed by a global audience.

The timing of these rumours is also pretty fascinating, especially given the hype building around Apples much rumoured smart TV. Should Intel beat Apple to market with this set top box, there is a very real chance that they could find themselves well positioned to capitalise on what could be biggest thing since tablets, smart phones and indeed sliced bread.

As exciting as all this all sounds, it is worth remembering that so far this is only speculation and that like most rumours, the devil is in the detail. This said, I had the opportunity to play with an Intel TV set top box back in 2009 whilst attending the Intel Developers Forum in San Francisco, so I can at least attest to the fact that set top boxes have been something Intel had historically worked on.

Earlier set top boxes aside, the multi-billion dollar question is will this revolutionary approach work? Unfortunately, this is where things get hairy, especially given the sheer number of players involved in the equation. TV networks are notoriously fickle as such can be difficult to deal with. Content studios are even more problematic. Both would need to say yes to Intel if this approach was to take off. It is also questionable as to how well the rumoured model of splitting customer subscription costs down to individual channels will sit with the networks and content creators, both of whom could see such an approach as being risky, especially given the already large amounts of money they're already making with the bundled channel approach.

Personally, I'd like to see this work. Not only could Intel's approach put a fairly sizeable dent in the amount of TV shows being downloaded by file sharers, it'd also throw content creators (most of whom have been struggling to find a workable business model for the digital age) the digital equivalent of a lifeline, but most importantly, Paying my Pay TV operator for a bunch of channels I'll never watch is beyond annoying and is realistically little more than a rip-off. Then there's the ability to watch a recorded show whilst on holiday at a hotel with WiFi access, which would be verily cool indeed. Here's hoping the rumour mill is correct on this one.

- NZ Herald

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