There's been some news about CableCard-ready PCs around the Web lately. Vendors Niveus and Velocity Micro announced shipping systems, and a competitor previewed an early build of Dell's forthcoming CableCard system. After two days of hammering away on a sample system, as well as some digging around with Microsoft, we think we have a clear picture of the PC-based CableCard situation as it stands today.
It is indeed true that Velocity Micro was shipping CableCard-ready home entertainment PCs. Niveus may have gotten one or two out the door as well, but they have both had to push shipments to mid-April for the moment. The reason is that AMD released some of its ATI Digital Cable Tuner cards to those vendors, but has since held-up follow-up orders for a firmware update. Those DCT cards, which plug into your computer's PCI slot (or via a USB 2.0 port in the external model) and accept the CableCard, apparently have some compatibility issues with Scientific Atlanta CableCards. From what we understand, the only bug here is if you plug a SA CableCard into a PC that's connected to an analog display, you'll lose the signal, even if you then reconnect to a proper, HDCP-compliant digital screen. The current solution: shut everything off, and turn it back on. Less than ideal, but not the end of the world.
The real bottleneck we encountered first hand. We worked with Time Warner Cable of New York City to get a Velocity Micro CineMagix Grand Theater set up with CableCard this week. The reaction of TWC's tech support, both over the phone and in person when they found out that we have a CableCard-ready PC, swung between genuine excitement and vast confusion. After visits from a technician, we still don't have a working CableCard connection (hopefully next Tuesday, our second follow-up appointment). Rather than dwell on the well-known and varied frustrations of a major utility's tech support, we found out some good information from Microsoft itself on why Time Warner seemed so uninformed. Here's what we got directly from Arvind Mishra, a member of Microsoft's CableCard team.
"We are in close contact with Time Warner Cable (and all the other major cable companies) and are currently rolling out training materials on the new platform. In fact, our team was just down in North Carolina last week testing the product in TWC's labs, and have also been jointly testing the product in NYC. In addition to those efforts, we are also creating a special call in number for cable technicians to call us directly."
This brings up a couple of points. First, if you were one of the lucky ones to get your hands on an early CableCard-ready PC, get ready to be patient with your local provider. Velocity Micro reported to us that of the handful of systems it has shipped, it has heard from at least one customer who got CableCard to work. Whether you have the same luck will probably depend on the willingness of the specific cable technician to take a stab at an unfamiliar install. A little finesse on the phone probably won't hurt, either (for example, you might not mention that there's a PC involved when you make the initial appointment).
The second point is that, while we certainly believe that Microsoft will distribute the training info to the cable providers sooner or later, how eagerly the providers embrace it is another question. It's already more-or-less accepted that the cable companies aren't big fans of current-generation CableCards. Since they're unidirectional devices, you can receive a signal, but you can't send one. That cuts out all of that lucrative pay-per-view revenue. As a case in point, when we made our install appointment, the first thing Time Warner Cable's customer service rep said to us after we asked for CableCard was, "Are you aware of CableCard's disadvantages?" Perhaps Microsoft's alliance with the CableLabs consortium has provisions to encourage cable providers to brush up on PC-based CableCard, but we weren't invited to that meeting.
Provider ambivalence aside, we hope that Microsoft gets those docs out the door soon. Both Velocity Micro and Niveus have pegged the end of April as their next ship dates (although you can place an order at both today). Even that might be too early for the cable companies to get fully up to speed, but we like that both vendors are showing enthusiasm for the platform and are willing to take the chance for their early adopting customers. But once a volume shipper such as Dell, HP, or Sony gets its CableCard PCs on the market, the number of installation and customer service calls will ratchet up dramatically. We hope the providers know what they're in for.