Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Businesses who don't trust customers

Comcastic image from barbariangroup.com.
Last month I contemplated something unthinkable (for me): I thought about breaking up with TiVo. I started my relationship with TiVo 11 years ago, with a Sony DirecTiVo box that I still consider among the best consumer electronics purchases I've ever made. Since then, I've gone through several TiVo boxes, as we moved from DirecTV to Comcast, from standard def to HD.

So why consider leaving? In short, my wife and I (not to mention our kids) are watching less and less broadcast TV, opting instead for what we can get on demand. Netflix Instant is great for tv series and some diamond-in-the-rough films, and Amazon VOD (both the free-to-Prime subscribers as well as the on-demand rentals) has been great. Though both services technically work with our TiVo boxes, the interface for both on our GoogleTV is much better, and has been how we consume both services. As a result, we found we were watching fewer and fewer recorded shows from the TiVo, and we were watching the on-demand services through GoogleTV, bypassing TiVo altogether. By moving to the Comcast boxes, we'd also get access to Comcast's On Demand programming, which we pay for through our monthly subscription but have no way to access (TiVo and Comcast have been claiming On Demand support is coming for years, but even if/when it does come, it'll likely be on TiVo equipment I don't own).

Off I went to Comcast to pick up a couple Comcast HD DVRs. I'd conveniently suppressed my last experience with Comcast equipment (that post is worth a read, btw), came home and hooked the first box up. It should have been simple, plugging the HDMI cable that had previously been connected to the TiVo into the Comcast box. (That HDMI cable is plugged into the GoogleTV box, which sends an HDMI signal to our receiver, which sends an HDMI signal to our TV.) Try as I might, I couldn't get anything to display on the television. The front of the Comcast box seemed to read "dU1", and I could only see a blue screen on the TV.

I called Comcast, which produced nothing actionable - the best they could offer was that I should try a different box. (I already had.)

After some Googling, I figured out what was up. It's called High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (or HDCP), and it's been in place for years. Turns out, Comcast doesn't trust me! Though I pay Comcast several hundred dollars per month - and was actually contemplating paying another $25/month for the two boxes - if I wanted to plug that HDMI cable into anything other than directly into my television, they consider me a pirate and forbid me from using my equipment at all. (That "dU1" error was actually saying "DVI", but given the limitations of the 1980s-era display on the cable box, that was the best they could come up with. To use the box, I'd need to revert to non-HDMI cabling, separating the video signal from the audio signal.)

I immediately unplugged the Comcast box and returned both. Re-connected the TiVos, and went back to using my equipment exactly how I wanted (which, by the way, is entirely legal).

So here's a 2012 resolution I intend to keep: companies who trust me get more of my money. Companies who don't trust me, or who implement unnecessary technical limitations on equipment I pay for and intend to use legally? Not so much.

BTW, Fred Wilson has a related rant up today titled #screwcable:
I've long believed that piracy is largely a business model problem not a human behavior problem. If you give people a legal way to consume the content they want, they will pay for it.

Interestingly enough, this same attitude - restricting innovation to protect legacy business models - is the very issue at the heart of the SOPA debate going on in Washington, DC as I write this. Though those of us opposing SOPA made progress last month, the fight is by no means over. Please visit Engine Advocacy (today!) and call Congress today to let your representatives know that you do not want to let the US government censor the web and further restrict users' legitimate uses of new technologies.

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