The set-top box will one day be the "home media center." No more separate boxes in the living rooms for DVDs, stereos, set-tops, game consoles and VCRs all will converge. Nor will consumers want to add more boxes as the industry creates new product categories. The new home media center must be able to accommodate all of these appliances.
The first personal video recorder (PVR) to enter the market in 1998 introduced a sea change in the viewing habits of TV watchers around the world. Instead of relying on the scheduling whims of network executives, or on videotapes to record favorite programs, viewers have been able to gain unprecedented control over the television. The advent of the PVR has allowed viewers to watch TV on their own time, and has opened up many revenue streams for service and content providers.
And, viewers can gain access to additional services through their TV sets, such as enhanced broadcasting capability, the combinati on of Internet access, TV broadcast and specialized services. Although the first PVR was a standalone device to be added to the range of boxes sitting in the living room, the majority of the PVR capability will actually be deployed via a cable or satellite set-top box/PVR combination. According to Cahners In-Stat's report "Digital Broadcast Satellite (DBS) Box Market Falters" (October 2001), the percentage of DBS set-top boxes with hard-disk drives will grow from 2 percent in 2001 to 50 percent in 2005.
However, incorporating new functionality, such as enhanced broadcasting and features yet to be developed, presents challenges to semiconductor and set-top-box manufacturers. For example, a set-top-box design must be future-proofed to address added features that may be unknown at the time of development. And the design must integrate the right balance of functionality in both hardware and software to allow for expandability as new features are added.
Indeed, the most challenging issue is the number, v ariability and uncertainty of the services that any particular consumer or service provider may want to use or deploy. In today's market, it is a necessary requirement to build a set-top box with the ability to add more functionality in terms of services, connections and features. Unfortunately, the functionality required will not be known until some future date either after the initial set-top-box design is complete or after deployment of the box in the field. This is why it is important to future-proof set-top boxes to meet the varying needs of the service providers.
The feature "sweet spot" of the hardware can be uncovered by adhering to two rules. First, features that will always be used for the life of the box should be developed in hardware. Second, features that, when implemented in hardware, have a very low cost should be chosen. Empirically, hardware is always cheaper and faster to develop than software, albeit less flexible.
For instance, features that adhere to these rules are simu ltaneous descramble, watch and record dual standard-definition video channels, all-format high-definition decode and three digital-video inputs, among others.
In contrast, features incorporated into software are for the areas where the standard is continually evolving or unknown. Examples include multiple TV viewing with Dolby Digital sound, "T-commerce" (commerce over the television), Internet browsing, MP3 audio listening, time-shift recording and personal video recording.
With the hardware and software sweet spots defined, it is then possible to specify the rest of the system requirements, such as processors, the software platform and standard I/O interfaces.
With a focus on establishing a platform with the right balance of hardware and software, and future-proofing the design to incorporate added features, the set-top box can act as the gateway to data networks and the broadcast infrastructure beyond the home, while functioning as a server interconnecting all kinds of consumer electronics. One recent solution that provides this mix of hardware and software is Philips Semiconductors' Nexperia Home Entertainment Engine, which incorporates both a 32-bit MIPS RISC core and a TriMedia media processor. The Nexperia engine can support time-shift recording, enhanced broadcasting, T-commerce, Internet gaming and other applications.
Those companies that can offer such a home media center will be able to deploy services faster, increase revenue streams, and maintain current and new subscribers better than those that have not adapted to the new rules.
See related chart