Coming Soon to a Windows 7 Machine Near You: Cable

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Last Wednesday night, on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, tucked a small remark into a gadget-y keynote. And if you work in multichannel video, you're going to need to know about it. Soon.

He said this (paraphrased): By March, consumers will be able to purchase, at retail, a gizmo that turns a Windows 7-based PC into a mambo-box, capable of displaying or recording four scrambled HD channels on as many HDTV screens. In other words, it shares a CableCard across four channels. This applies to new PCs with Windows7, as well as existing PCs, upgrading to Win7.

The device is made by Seattle-area-based Ceton. It looks like any other expansion card meant to be stuffed into desktop and tower-style PCs: About the size of two Pop Tarts, glued together. (Laptop users: yes, a USB peripheral version is in the works, as is a six-tuner version.) The demo drew applause when Ballmer invoked the Media Center guide, using Cox Communications' channel data, to record two shows, then three shows, then four. For Microsoft, this is the Kool-Aid big-gulp: The uber-set-top box, Windows-based, of course, and tricked out for multiroom DVR. It moves video via “extenders” to HDTV screens all over the house. Currently, the only game in town for tuning scrambled cable channels, on the PC, is a single-tuner card.

Why this matters No. 1: It could easily light a fire under the noticeably low numbers of CableCard devices selling at retail — 430,000, according to the NCTA, vs. 17.1 mil installed by cable operators (because they were mandated to do so.)

Why it matters No. 2: Tech support may not be a cinch. Today's set-tops, all of which now use CableCards are “pre-paired” prior to being installed in anyone's home. The pairing is between the card and the box. Not so for this new gadget, which does its pairing at the point of install.

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