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The Post-Monopoly Game

Doc Searls

Issue #182, June 2009

Walking out of cable TV's walled garden.

Far as I know (that is, as far as some Motorola engineers have told me), my Dish Network and Verizon FiOS set-top boxes are Linux machines. So is my Sony flat-screen TV, which came complete with a four-page document explaining the GPL.

Linux in each case is embedded. That is, it is enslaved to a single purpose or to a narrow set of purposes. This isn't a big deal. Linux has become the default embedded operating system for all kinds of stuff. I just think TV would have a lot bigger future if we liberated the whole category from enslavement to Hollywood and its captive distributors.

Until we do, the one-way-ness of TV remains a highway to hell.

I'm getting a good look at that hell right now, sitting in an airport lounge in Boston. It's still winter as I'm writing this. There are lots of canceled flights and, therefore, lots of relevant news on the lounge television, tuned, as always, to CNN. If this were two years ago, there would have been people gathered around that TV to see what's up with the weather and the rest of the news.

But, not today. Nobody is watching. The TV is just noise in the background. Of the 18 passengers waiting here, all but two are using laptops. I just did a quick walk-around and talked to a few of the laptoppers. All of them are using their laptops to keep up with weather and flight conditions. TV can't compete with that. There are too many good sources of information on the Web now. More important, they're all interactive. TV isn't—not yet, anyway.

As it happens, our family withdrew cold-turkey from TV this morning. We called Verizon and canceled our FiOS TV service. The set-top box, Linux innards and all, is now sitting in the hall, waiting to be ferried back to a Verizon office.

The reason was choice. Even at its best, TV didn't give us much—not compared to the endless millions of choices on YouTube, Hulu and everybody else with video to share on the Web.

The free stuff—old-fashioned over-the-air (OTA) TV—is a mess. By the time you read this, most or all of the TV stations in the US will be transmitting digital audio and video, via ATSC. Old-fashioned analog NTSC, which has been with us since the 1940s, will be gone by the June 12 deadline. I'm not sure how much people will bother watching. All you get are a couple dozen channels, tops.

On cable or satellite, you can get much more. I don't think you can get a bigger selection than what Verizon FiOS offers. Where we live, FiOS carries 596 channels, including 108 HD channels and 136 premium channels, most of which are also HD. By the time I canceled the service on the phone this morning, the FiOS agent had reduced the price of the Extreme HD plan to $47.99/month, including free DVR set-top box rental (normally $12.99/month). That plan has 358 channels, including all 108 HD channels. It's a helluva deal, if you like a lot of TV. Making FiOS even better is that it comes over a fiber-optic connection that provides uncompromised data quality.

But we still canceled it, because we'd rather not watch channels at all. We'd rather watch programs. Or movies. Or stuff that doesn't fit either category. And, we'd prefer a better way to select them than by struggling with any of the cable or satellite systems' “guides”, which are all terrible. It's much easier to navigate file paths and to do it on a real computing device, including today's smart phones (which are really data devices that also do telephony). Because there's lots of video available on-line and from rental services like Netflix, we figure we'd take advantage of those. As it happens, Verizon makes it easy to get them in high-def, because we remain customers of FiOS high-speed Internet. There we get a solid 20Mbps both upstream and down, for $64.99. It's an excellent deal, because that's for the whole world, and not just for a few hundred “channels” behind the gate to a walled garden.

Now that we've walked out of cable TV's walled garden, I can see how it traps the carriers even more than it traps the viewers. What they're trapped in is a scarcity game. And, they're losing. The producers and consumers are getting together without them. I can watch ACC sports on-line at the Raycom site. Nearly every channel on TV has a Web site that offers either live or archived content. True, all of them are pains in the butt to use (some requiring Flash plugins or worse), and many make half-hearted efforts to protect their cable and station distributors. But the writing is on the screen.

Now I'm thinking about what the abundance business would be like. What would you want out of the carriers if their Linux set-top boxes were open, or if you could provide your own? What game should they be playing once all they own is, say, the railroads and not the whole Monopoly board? Or hey, choose your own metaphor. Let's help them out here. They'll need it.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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