Stocking Up on Retail Cable Hardware

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A year from today -- or maybe two years, but probably three
years, knowing how these things work -- I will stop at my neighborhood electronics store
to buy those great new cable modems and OpenCable boxes that I've been hearing so
much about. Yes indeed, the message of that niftily named Broadband Cable Forum has sunk
in ($350,000 annual budget notwithstanding), and I'm ready to buy!

I'll be getting all of my digital services via cable,
and where better to stock up on access devices than here at the mega-retailer where I
purchase digital TV sets, digital PCS phones, digital back massagers and, if anyone wanted
them, DVDs?

Now the first chore in this "big-box" emporium is
to find where the cable modems and digital set-top boxes are sold. In the computer
department? In the TV department, right next to the digital satellite receivers? Maybe
they're in the new digital-cable department. I'll ask the helpful kid (who I
could swear was my analog server in a fast-food restaurant just a week ago).

Well, it turns out that he's not being spiffed enough
to know where the digital-cable products are stocked. I wander around a bit and realize
that this is just the start of my shopping challenge. Since this particular electronics
superstore is in a no-man's land amid multiple cable franchises, there's
actually no direct cable feed into the store. Hence, there are no real-live demonstrations
of cable-modem service or digital cable.

Cache and carry only.

Oh, I could go to another branch of this chain, but it
turns out that cable's retailing vision didn't quite match the reality of wiring
shopping centers.

Even if the store were wired, it might be demonstrating
Road Runner/MediaOne Express/@Home (or whatever that blended service is called in 2001).
But I actually live across town, and my cable operator carries one of those home-brewed
cable-modem packages.

Will the demo in this store match what I actually can get
from my cable system? The underspiffed clerk doesn't know. In fact, he barely knows
what I'm talking about. He certainly can't tell me which is the right modem to
buy. The BCF campaign assures us that there's total compatibility among modems, but
do you blame me for being cautious -- even if this high-speed modem costs a mere $199?

Suddenly, I recall that back in May 1998, Motorola promised
to convene a summit of retailers and cable executives to spell out its
cable-modem-marketing plan. So I call Motorola's Dick Day and ask, "What
happened?" He reminds me that he vaguely promised to set up such a summit "in
the fall," but thanks to El Niño (or La Niña, or the Cubs' pennant sprint),
autumn never arrived in Chicago that year.

So the modem vision became another bit of peripheral
idealism.

Frustrated in my cable-modem shopping, I move on to the
OpenCable retail pursuit. I remember Broadcom's promise of a single microprocessor
that can put cable-modem service and digital-cable functionality into one set-top box
(again by the famous fall of '98, or, as we skepthusiasts prefer to call it, the
"never-ending six months from now"). This solves my modem problem, since one box
will do it all.

Sadly, the set-top-box department here at my neighborhood
electronics emporium is plagued by the same problem as the modem section: no cable hookup.
Hey, Best Buys and Good Guys didn't have phone connections back in 1998, when they
were trying to sell WebTV boxes. And look how well those moved.

Nonetheless, as a typical consumer-electronics customer, I
am totally satisfied with the brochures and canned demonstrations. Certainly, I believe
the promise and that handsome CableLabs label of authenticity assuring me that this
OpenCable set-top box (another consumer-friendly marketing term) will just plug-and-play
on any cable system.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remember Walt
Ciciora's tirade against the consumer-electronics makers for a press release in 1998
that overpromised on cable-ready equipment. And I seem to recall a Bear Stearns forecast
that by 2001, only about 25 percent of most large MSOs will be digital-ready.

Of course, no one here in the mega-store can tell me where
my house fits into this equation. Where's Spiff when I need him? Maybe I should head
over to Nobody Beats the Wiz, which is actually owned by a cable operator, but there is no
branch within 200 miles of my house.

Well, my electronics-shopping spree in the new millennium
has ended just as the ones back in the late '90s did. I don't know exactly what
I've bought, and the instruction books are complicated, but I'm ready to have
fun with these nifty new gizmos.

Oops, I'll have to run back to buy an extra surge
protector.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen knows that electronics
retailing is not like shopping at Nordstrom's.

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