Crossing the Threshold of the Gateway

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Part of the reason technology gets confusing is a lack of suitable words to describe the things that matter.

The things of interest aren't just wedged between nonsense adjectives, stifled in a hyperbolic fog nearly as thick as the air in the Crescent City last week. They also masquerade as each other, descriptively.

On the 2002 National Show floor, things called "gateways" lined the booths of set-top, home-networking, telephony, and cable-modem suppliers. (It's the industrial version of To Tell the Truth: Will the real residential gateway please stand up?)

In each case, the "gateway" descriptor was legitimate: All existed to usher in new services, through one door or another. But that hardly helps those of us trying to distinguish the scary from the benign, the useful from the useless or the real from the hype.

We live and work in a time in which the worlds of data and telecommunications are on an unstoppable and widening junction with cable's core video business. It follows that equipment suppliers old and new are in a development frenzy: If multiple services can be folded into one box — instead of one service per box — then everybody wants to be the maker of that box.

PILING ON

Set-top suppliers want to add a cable modem, router and hard drive, in various combinations, to the piece of hardened plastic that does its work near the TV set.

Cable-modem makers want to adjoin the stuff of voice services — or latch on a router, or a bridger, or all — making the PC the head of the broadband household.

Because these decisions carry enormous economic and strategic implications, few cable operators are far enough along in the thought process to know which hardware combinations make the most sense.

So perhaps it makes more sense to look beyond what these things are called, and more at what they do. Reverse translations, in a sense.

A digital set-top with a built-in cable modem adds two things: A better background signal path for the basic back-and-forth stuff of everyday operations, and a way to incorporate the fruits of the Internet. (Today's press releases call this box "advanced" or "next-generation.")

Add a hard disk, and it becomes a cable-specific digital video recorder, or DVR, with a list price ranging from $650 to $800. Add a router, and it can shuttle the stuff of the Internet, as well as captured content, to other TVs or the stereo. (Today's lingo is all over this one — "residential gateway," "home media server," "media gateway.")

Then there's the cable-modem camp. Add the circuits that handle voice-over-Internet protocol, and a few RJ-11 jacks, and it's a box that does both broadband Internet access and phone calls. (This usually goes by "multimedia terminal adapter," or MTA.)

Add a router, and it becomes a way to link all the PCs in the house. (In today's language, this device is also sometimes known as a "residential gateway.")

Economically, the least expensive combination box is probably the cable-modem/VoIP unit. Cable-modem prices are (unbelievably) now in the north $50s, which is a far cry from the $200-plus starting point for digital set-tops.

HDTV INTRIGUE

Strategically, the most interesting is probably the box that also handles high-definition TV, for four reasons:

  • Upwards of 2 million HDTV displays, now in the $1500 range, are expected to sell into multichannel video homes this year;
  • Offering HDTV over cable requires a new box;
  • A new box means a visit to the home;
  • The people who buy $1500 television sets are probably the same people who like the idea of on-demand TV, networking other sets and PCs and getting to the Internet more quickly.

And, of course, it's never just the box, despite all the convention hoopla.

There's the physical cable network and its architecture, which affects the available bandwidth to and from homes. There's the headend controllers, and the back-office tasks to initiate service, handle trouble calls, terminate service and send bills.

As far as terminology goes, unless we create wholly new words — Liberate Technologies Inc.'s Mitchell Kertzman gets two gold stars for "splatform," to replace "software platform" — the needle on the jargon meter will probably remain tilted toward robotic gibberish. That's the list of shapeless adjectives that unseasoned almost all of last week's technology news releases.

You know these words. Really. Robustly. You do. As a solutions provider in this scalable space, you're end-to-end in them.

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