The last thing I expected was for Apple to find itself becoming an issue in the crazy 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, particularly with the threat from Donald Trump to boycott Apple. Or whatever he said. Perhaps that should be a badge of honor, but it raises a larger question that is lost in all the political posturing. It’s about what level of freedom you want to give up in exchange for the possibility of getting more information about a terrorist’s plans.
Remember, I said possibility. Nobody really knows what’s stored in that iPhone 5c that belonged to one of the San Bernardino, CA shooters. There may be nothing there, or whatever is there might be stored in an encrypted third-party app, such as WhatsApp, which would force the authorities to go after someone else I suppose.
To make matters worse, Apple has reportedly said that the authorities made the foolish mistake of changing the Apple ID on that device, making it impossible to recover any data without creating a backdoor.
Unfortunately, at least some of the statements made against Apple’s position reflect the attitudes of people who know very little about technology, let alone issues of security and the potential for the act of hacking one iPhone getting out of hand real fast. So the White House says, essentially, what’s the big deal? It’s only one handset, but they fail to understand the consequences, that opening up one gadget makes it possible to unlock others. Once the precedent is set, what is to stop state governments and foreign governments from exerting similar pressures on Apple? It’s the security of your data that’s at stake, and the genie cannot be put back into the bottle once freed.
Of course, none of that will prevent Apple from updating iOS and/or the hardware in a way that nobody can break in for any reason, not even Apple. End of story.
In any case, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we were joined by commentator John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer. His bill of fare included Apple’s dispute with the FBI over whether they should be forced to develop a special iOS update that’ll allow the authorities to break into an encrypted iPhone 5c that belonged to a terrorist. John also talked about “hard disks spinning right into the graveyard,” the severe limitations of Apple’s Time Machine backup app, what happens when your autonomous (self-driving) car crashes, whether the next Apple Watch will be thinner, and what to do when your Apple Watch informs you NOT to eat a candy bar or other junk food.
You also heard from commentator and podcaster Kirk McElhearn, also known as Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” who also talked about the implications of the court order demanding that Apple break into an encrypted iPhone. Kirk also attempted to answer the question of how software on an encrypted iPhone can be updated without someone entering the correct passcode to allow it to happen. He also discussed rumors that Apple is working on an explicit TV series featuring their own Dr. Dre, whether Apple’s software quality has declined, and whether we should discontinue daylight savings time and, perhaps, all time zones.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Peter Davenport, director of the National UFO Reporting Center, to join us for a UFO update. According to Davenport, “One of the issues I would like to discuss is the wild proliferation of sightings of clusters of red, orange, and yellow fireballs. It appears to be the most important facet to the current status of Ufology, and I strongly suspect that the overwhelming majority of those reports do not involve so-called ‘Chinese’ lanterns.” Davenport will also discuss his ongoing plans to develop a UFO detection system using “passive” radar. First proposed 22 years ago, Davenport suggests that recent advancements in personal computer technology make the plans more feasible than ever.
When you set up an account with a cable or satellite provider, you have to also obtain a device to actually decode the information and send it to your TV set. In the old days, a set would be “cable ready” by offering extra analog channels for non-premium cable content. Not so in the days of digital, where each provider has their own system to deliver digital content, which sort of forces you to buy or lease their own hardware.
Now in theory there’s an exception, at least for cable in the U.S. (but not satellite), and that’s the CableCARD. This is a secure ID card that allows a third-party set-top box to decrypt content from the cable guy. But the cable guy installs them reluctantly. I heard one story where someone wanted two, for two set-top boxes. So the cable company installed them, but one didn’t work. No, the customer couldn’t just install it without a technician, an absurd concept.
Now you’d think they’d take back the faulty card and replace it, right? No, instead they insisted that they could only install the pair, and thus took back both and returned with another pair. Again, one card failed. This crazy routine continued for a while until the customer gave up, which may have been the plan.
I find the story unbelievable, but it’s also clear the CableCARD concept is faulty. In theory, they should just mail it to you and let you do it yourself, which is, of course, how it works for some companies. But there’s more: You see, the cable card may not be free. The cable provider can charge you a monthly fee to use it. I’m serious! It may not be as high as renting the set-top box, but there might be a fee. One report I read claimed Comcast would only charge a fee for a second card, whereas another report claimed the figure was as high as the set-top box. This may vary from market-to-market.
The worst part about it, however, is that the CableCARD is a one-way device, which means you can receive stations, but interactive features, such as on-demand and pay-per-view, do not function. If you want to rent a movie via PPV, you have to call the cable company. So in this way, the cable companies have severely crippled a key function of the user experience.
Once upon a time, there was supposed to be a version 2.0 CableCARD that would enable two-way communication. But it doesn’t appear to have ever been completed, and it’s no longer being mentioned.
Into that breach, the FCC decided to do the logical thing, which was to require the cable and satellite companies to allow third-party set-top boxes to be set up without the nonsense. According to the FCC ruling, 99% of subscribers to pay-TV buy or lease set-top boxes from their service provider. The lease or rental fees average $231 per year, or $19.25 per month. Quite often these fees cover more than a single box, or possibly a whole house system. The total revenue from these fees is estimated at $20 billion per year, and have risen 185% since 1994.
Now compare that to a TiVo, with prices ranging from $149 to $599, depending in the product. But there is also a monthly fee that I saw listed at $14.99 per month for the TiVo programming service, although the new box may include a full-year complimentary service package.
But wait a minute! What’s the point of TiVo anyway if you have to pay twice? First for the set-top box, second for a required programming service? Either way, it will cost more than just renting the cable/satellite box. At least if you’re renting, you can theoretically upgrade the box as new models come out, so you’re always up to date with the latest features.
I grant that TiVo is supposed to be the Apple or iOS of pay-TV programming interfaces, but the providers are getting better at that game. The Contour box from Cox is decent enough, and lets you do the basics, such as recording a show, setting up a season pass, which means recording a series, fast forwarding through the ads and searching. That’s also true with the hardware from Dish Network and DirecTV. You may blanch at paying those monthly fees, but there really is not much in the way of a third-party alternative, beyond TiVo of course.
The FCC’s ruling to open up this market carries the usual 60-day comment period. The cable and satellite companies are protesting at the potential loss of all that set-top box money, which is to be expected. On the other hand, it’s not free to build, distribute and support all that hardware. There’s also nothing to prevent them from selling third-party gear and earning appropriate profits from being a reseller.
By opening up the market to competition, the cable/satellite companies would also be put in the position of being forced to work harder to compete on the quality of service. And if their proprietary set-top box offers better features, and more fluid operation, perhaps they’d be able to persuade you to keep paying the rental fees.
The other advantage of having your own set-top box is that you could switch the service without losing all your programming settings — though probably not content you’ve recorded via the DVR feature, although I suppose that’s possible. Still, it would give you the freedom of paying a little less per month even if you kept your current service.
It would also open the market to a wider range of innovation that isn’t limited to TiVo, and you shouldn’t be forced to pay a special programming fee to get a unique interface, although that is a key profit center for TiVo. To me, it’s the equivalent of getting two bites at the Apple. It would be similar to buying a personal computer, but being forced to rent the operating system on a monthly basis. That may be what Microsoft would like, but they are still giving away Windows 10, at least for the time being. Even if they charge for it again later this year, it would be a one-time fee.
In the end, kicking and screaming, the cable/satellite companies will end up going along with the ruling, but the market won’t be opened up right away. And most people probably will continue to rent their set-top boxes, particularly if the service offers more incentives to do so at a lower price.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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