Eating the Dog Food

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What exactly changed for the average Joe Six-Remote on July 1?

From some media coverage of the FCC’s integrated set-top ban, you might have thought it was tantamount to the falling of the Berlin Wall, or maybe American colonists expelling the British redcoats. In short, a joyous moment to be celebrated by long-suffering masses.

“Forget July 4. July 1 is the real Independence Day for 65 million cable TV subscribers in the U.S.,” Business Week declared last week. As of that fateful Sunday, the story continued, consumers “are free of the tyranny of being forced to rent miserable set-top boxes from their cable companies.”

Wow, someone call Paul Revere!

Only later does the article allude to the fact that retail CableCard-based devices have already been available for several years. And so far, not many consumers have opted to throw off their chains: Operators have deployed just 259,000 CableCards as of March 15, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

How to explain this? Here’s the version of history from the BusinessWeek story, which could have been penned by the Consumer Electronics Association: “When CableCards first became available a couple of years ago, manufacturers rushed in with products, especially TVs. But consumers had trouble getting CableCards from cable operators and when they did, they often didn’t work very well. The products didn’t sell well, and the manufacturers lost interest.”

Big Mean Cable’s side of the story, not mentioned in the article, is that most subscribers aren’t actually interested in this feature. But the CEA complains that it’s been “burned” by the “lack of support” from cable companies, and needed the government to intervene.

So here we are: The FCC has sided with the CEA’s argument for why there’s a nearly nonexistent market for CableCard-ready devices. Now the government is forcing cable operators to “eat their own dog food” on CableCards–that is, use the same technology it developed. That unappetizing aphorism has its origins in the computer-software software industry; some marketing bon vivant later came up with “drinking our own Champagne.”

The hope is that CableCards will now work a whole lot better, and CE makers will have more confidence in the technology, now that cable operators are operationally dependent on them.

Even if that’s true, there’s a leap of logic required to get to the idea that this dog-food-eating process will — somehow, magically — result in an explosion of interest by consumers in CableCard devices.

Let’s say Toyota offered customers a choice of keys to their cars: those it supplied itself, or ones manufactured by third parties. Government bureaucrats decide they want to stimulate competition in the car-key market. Plus, they’ve been hearing scuttlebutt from the non-Toyota keymakers that keys sometimes need a little tweaking to work properly with a Prius, which uses a wireless transponder system instead of conventional keys. So Toyota is ordered to use exactly the same technical interfaces as the third-party keymakers for new cars.

Now, will that result in better-functioning third-party keys? Maybe. Would that in turn spur lower prices for keys, or cooler key designs? Maybe not. Perhaps you would see Apple — finally! after years of oppression by car companies! — embed Toyota-car-key functions into an iPhone. How totally unbelievably radically cool would that be?

Or, maybe all that would happen is Toyota would have to spend a ton of money revamping its manufacturing process for keys. And 99% of all car buyers would still just choose to get their keys directly from the automakers.

We’ll have to wait to see how the dog-food thesis pans out for cable.