Saturday, April 07, 2007

Will CableCard Support Ever Arrive for BeyondTV, Sage or MythTV?

Now that CableCard is here for Vista PC users, will it ever be available to other PVR software?
What is CableCard?
First off, what is CableCard? A CableCard is a special plug-in card that allows you to watch digital cable TV on any cable system in the United States through your digital cable-ready TV or more importantly through your HTPC (only Vista MCE today). Your local cable system operator supplies the card, which plugs into the rear of your digital TV set or in this case, it plugs into your CableCard Tuner like the Ocur.
Why do HTPC users care about CableCard?
Why would CableCard be beneficial to an HTPC user? In short, all cable, HD channels (or actually all cable channels) could be accessed directly by your HTPC through a CableCard tuner. Currently, your HTPC can access analog channels from your cable provider with no need for a cable-companies cable box. You can even access unencrypted digital channels from your cable provider using the excellent HDHomeRun device described in this article - unfortunately, many cable providers encrypt many of their cable channels so the HDHomeRun and even your nice, new HD TV set with a tuner built in can't access those encrypted channels. So your only other option has been to rent a cable company provided cable-box and a IR blaster and get your channels that way. This is less than perfect because of the likely delay from the IR blaster as well as the fact you aren't getting a pure HD file this way. With the cablecard, you would hopefully be able to get almost all of the cable channels in all their HD glory whether they were encrypted or not - just like you can with a cable box.
What's the Catch?
Ah yes, there's always a catch isn't there? PVRWire outlined a few gotcha's with the CableCard support for HTPC's.
Only certified manufacturers will be able to create media center PCs with CableCard support - no homebrew PC's are allowed to use CableCards
Any video coming through the CableCard must be protected from the evil-doers (read you, the HTPC user) and fully-laden with DRM. Microsoft has created their own proprietary version of the mpeg file they call the DVR-MS file. This is a "protected" or DRM'd version of the Mpeg-2 that is used by most other PVR software programs.
All files stored on the HTPC hard drive must be encrypted. No copying of those files and no placeshifting to V1 MCE extenders or the Zune or other portable media devices is permitted.
The tuner will decrypt the file from the cable signal and then re-encrypt it in the tuner with DRM. The video will then travel through a USB port to the media center, even if the Tuner is an internal PCI card.
No HMS's (home media systems) or what you and I call HTPC software other than Microsoft's Vista MCE are currently in the club.
Can other HTPC software's get CableCard support?
When reading Chris Laniers MCE-centric blog, I noticed a post he made about the DVR-MS format. His post was about why he felt the DVR-MS format was used for MCE. His points were, 1. so MCE could maintain metadata such as show title, info date etc 2. Content Protection (read DRM) and 3. Resources - he argues that DVR-MS is the only format to record to because it is less taxing on a PC's resources to record to a Mpeg-4 type format. I commented that the only reason Microsoft chose the proprietary DVR-MS format was for DRM. You can read the entire article and the comments Chris Lanier DVR-MS Story.
Chris made a comment that caused me to wonder, why don't Snapstream and Sage and others step up and get CableCard support? Does Microsoft have a monopoly on that? Here's how Chris responded:
"Microsoft doesn't have a monopoly on that. OCUR is open to any software mfg, you can download all the needed docs from CableLabs. MCE is currently the only "HMS" approved by CableLabs. I see no reason why Beyond TV or Sage could not get support if they really wanted to.
Granted, it would still take a ton of work, but Microsoft by no means has a monopoly on it."
So I ask, what would it take for Snapstream or Sage to be able to use the CableCard on their software? Here are my thoughts and ideas, but feel free to comment with your ideas in the comments:
Are the resources to get CableLabs seal of approval are not within the means of a smaller company like Snapstream or Sage? For a complete writeup of the Certification requirements demanded by CableLabs, read this "brief" fifty-one page document found on the CableLabs website.
If non-MCE companies did get the certification, they too would have to bundle their software with a system builder since the CableCard can't be used on a home-built system. It must be pre-certified hardware with a special motherboard bios in it that will hold an encryption key in it. Neither Snapstream or Sage currently bundle their software with the Dell's or the HP's of the world. It would be very difficult for them to do this and compete with a company like Microsoft that has their Media Center software "build-in" to the operating system. I'm sure Netscape would find this fact very familiar...
If these other companies actually are trying to get CableLabs seal of approval, they couldn't tell us. It says so on the CableLabs "rules for vendors" page.
Even though BeyondTV and many other PVR software programs out there can work with Vista, they can't piggyback on top of Vista's CableCard support. According to Rakesh Agrawal, the CEO of Snapstream, this isn't something that's exposed in Microsoft's API, at least not beyond being able to change channels within MCE's TV app.
So there you have it. I agree with Chris that other PVR software makers could in theory get CableCard support, but is it really possible for these smaller companies? Hasn't the bar been set so high and so costly that only a large company with great means and resources (read Microsoft or some day Apple) could do it? Let me know what you think in the comments. I hope I'm wrong, but I fear that CableCard is here for Microsoft only at least for a very long time.
ATI's CableCard Tuner