Hard Driving Toward Set-Top VOD


"Warning: If you don't control TV, it will control

The recognizable caution-label layout appears as a sticker
on a TV remote control. It dominates the cheeky full-page ad from Quantum Corp., a maker
of computer hard drives. The cleverly worded message takes a poke at TV schedules that
"dole out bathroom and snack breaks every 12.5 minutes."

Quantum's ad for its "QuickView" digital-storage
technology -- which lets viewers "pause live TV," among other features -- is the
first in a series of promotions aimed at consumer-electronics retailers and high-end
home-theater buffs.

It is timed to support the rollout of "TiVo personal-video recorders and ReplayTV
personal-TV servers" -- those would-be VCR replacements that are the buzz of
digerati. Quantum was an early investor in both ventures, and it supplies both with hard

The ads are also a reminder that when it comes to digital
television, this type of industrial-strength set-top video storage (10 to 20 gigabytes and
climbing fast) may be consumers' digital product of preference, rather than the
floundering HDTV sets or not-ready-for-retail digital-cable boxes.

Indeed, TiVo, Replay Networks and a gaggle of competitors
are escalating their campaigns to put a modified form of video-on-demand at the set-top.
This month's alliance between NDS Ltd. and cable set-top-box maker Pace Micro Technology
raised the stakes with its vision of an integrated digital set-top box that includes
massive local storage.

The companies don't yet have a customer for NDS'
"XTV" ("Xtended Television") technology, which the company introduced
this past spring. In fact, they don't even have a hard-drive supplier for the box with
video storage. But Pace claims it will have a product ready for market by this time next

Earlier this month, Western Digital Corp., another large
hard-drive maker, unveiled its "WD Performer" line, geared specifically to the
home-entertainment industry for use in TV sets, digital recorders, set-top boxes and
audio-video home jukeboxes.

It's available in versions up to 27.2 GB, which could hold
more than 25 hours of standard MPEG-video storage or 500 hours of CD-quality MP3 audio.
Sony has already signed up to use WD's technology in unspecified new products.

Taken together, these separate initiatives indicate two

• Hard-drive makers are desperate to find new markets
for their wares now that they've been commoditized in the PC realm; and

• The unknown impact of these personal-video recorders
is already driving advertisers and programmers nuts.

Not surprisingly, the high expectations for this technology
are fueling the appetite for stock in TiVo, which is due to issue its initial public
offering within days.

For Silicon Valley component makers, the move toward
consumer-electronics and set-top box applications has been under way for years.

Another drive maker, Seagate Technology, was an early
investor in WebTV. Nearly two years, ago this column described the dream of former WebTV
president Steve Perlman, who envisioned a set-top digital recorder with 1 terabyte of
storage by 2008.

Thomson Consumer Electronics -- which already plans to put
WebTV technology into its TV sets -- is believed to have even bigger storage plans for
future sets. Panasonic, JVC, Philips and their set-making brethren have hinted at or
actually enunciated plans to put similar storage capacity into future TV models, probably
as soon as next year.

The rapidly falling price of this massive storage capacity
is adding to the industry's interest. Within a year, $50 will buy about 20 GB of storage
(at OEM levels). That's about one-half of what it costs today -- and a sharp reminder
about electronics economics to customers who paid $50 per GB last year or $50 for 100
megabytes a few years ago.

Satellite receivers with built-in video storage have been
trickling into the market, too (EchoStar's deal with WebTV and DirecTV's product with TiVo
and Philips). Sales results aren't available -- not surprising, given the limited

The bigger issue, of course, is what happens next -- and
how programming is affected by set-top storage.

For now, the major attraction of these devices is the
flexibility they offer to viewing: simultaneous recording and playback so you can
"pause" a live show; intelligent electronic program guides that help you to find
favorite shows; and technology that actually recommends programs that fit your viewing

The next steps bring VOD even closer to the set-top:
downloading specific shows, delivery of personalized commercials and similar
customer-controlled applications. That's not to mention the audio-on-demand downloading
capabilities of this equipment.

The warning is appropriate: This capability will change
viewing patterns in ways much deeper and more complex than VCRs did two decades ago.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen definitely needs more
storage space -- digital and otherwise.