Zero Sign On a first step towards Apple TVs replacing crappy cable boxes

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in iPod + iTunes + AppleTV edited June 6
At the WWDC keynote Monday, Apple announced its first-ever deal with a U.S. cable provider to make Apple TV function as a cable box replacement. But, whether that can happen universally is another matter.

Charter Spectrum announcement at WWDC


The Apple TV portion of the keynote, also included the arrival of Dolby Atmos surround sound support on Apple TV's new tvOS 12 update, and new home control system deals. But it was another announcement that may end up making an even bigger difference to the future of Apple TV.

Jennifer Folse, Apple TV's lead designer, said during the keynote that Apple TV is "the best box to connect to your TV -- and that's now more true than ever, as more and more cable companies fundamentally shift how video gets to your TV."

"This typical cable box is becoming a thing of the past, as these companies embrace Internet-based delivery," said Folse. "Many of them share our vision as the one device for live, on-demand and cloud DVR content. We've already started working with partners around the world to make this a reality."

Apple had already announced deals with cable companies in Europe, such as Canal+ in France and Salt in Switzerland, where customers can access their cable through Apple TV rather than a traditional cable box.

But the big announcement Monday was for the first such deal in the U.S.: Charter Spectrum customers will be able to get their cable through Apple TV, starting "late this year." Charter Spectrum, the product of multiple cable company mergers, is available in several large markets, New York City included.

"That means that up to 50 million homes will be able to choose Apple TVs to access all their live channels and thousands of on-demand programs," Folse added. "They'll be able to use Siri and TV app to get access to their TV service not only on Apple TV but on iPhone and iPad as well."

What will make that possible is the advent of Zero Sign On, a new feature that automatically detects the user's broadband connection and therefore does not require sign-on to any apps. It replaces the earlier "Single Sign On," which required users to sign on only once.

Charter Spectrum, according to statistics released in March by Statista, is the third-largest pay TV provider in the U.S., with 16.42 million subscribers; they rank below Comcast and DirecTV and ahead of Dish Network, Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-Verse. Apple's $50 million figure would appear to apply to all of the cable companies worldwide with which it has reached partnerships.

Apple will be "adding more providers over time," Folse added.

The Charter Spectrum deal may have had its roots years earlier. Time Warner had said in 2012 that it would be willing to give up user interface control to an Apple TV box; Time Warner's cable division was sold to Spectrum in 2016.

What this isn't

The available Apple TV channels


It's important to keep a few things in mind with this. Although the launch of a standalone TV service from Apple has been rumored over the years, that's not what this is. With these deals, Apple is partnering with cable companies, not seeking to replace them.

Also, this doesn't have anything to do with "cord-cutting." This Apple TV deal is meant to benefit cable subscribers and, from the cable companies' standpoint, to get them to stick with cable, rather than abandon it.

While Charter Spectrum is clearly a huge get for Apple, Comcast remains the leader in this space. Since Comcast has been strongly pushing their X1 platform and its own features, it doesn't appear they'd be willing to surrender their platform to Apple.

Comcast, as of early last year, actually made its service available through Roku, although not through Apple TV.

History of the box

Jennifer Folse with an older cable box


The cable box itself has a long and complicated history.

Cable boxes have existed, of course, for as long as there's been cable. And for most of that time, they've been both not very functional and notably ugly.

Even as cable has moved from analog to digital, the boxes themselves have remained big, grey and boxy, while taking up way more space than they should, while providing a substandard user experience. If you have a house full of gadgets, there's a good chance your cable box is the worst gadget you own.

There's a reason for this: cable companies have long exercised near-complete control over distribution of cable boxes. They're like the rotary phones of old -- customers don't get to choose which cable box they want, nor is there any variety of cable boxes on the market from different manufacturers. Consumers are stuck with what their cable companies give them, and also with monthly fees for the boxes.

Cable industry revenue from the boxes was estimated at $20 billion per year as of 2015, though an analyst report the following year stated that if the industry ever lost that revenue, it would make it up by raising prices.

The consumer electronics industry spent many years fighting for changes in that regard, arguing that innovation would lead to better cable boxes and higher customer satisfaction, along with, of course, more money in the pockets of electronics manufacturers.

There were efforts to change this for years; as early as 1996, Congress asked the FCC to end the cable companies' monopoly on cable boxes, which led to the mostly failed "CableCard" system, but didn't meaningfully change the status quo.

In 2016, the Obama Administration listened, and pushed the FCC to allow competition in the space. In a weekly address on April 16 of that year, President Obama specifically addressed the issue.





"One industry that's ripe for change is cable TV. Right now, 99 percent of cable and satellite TV customers rent set-top boxes from their providers," Obama said. "According to one survey, this costs households an average of more than $230 per year. We spend some $20 billion to rent these devices. While we have almost unlimited choice in what we watch on television, from traditional programming to online content, there's next to no competition to build a better, user-friendly product that allows you to easily access all this content in one place."

However, the rule was never finalized, and the change in administrations doomed Obama's proposal. When Trump-appointed Ajit Pai took over as FCC chairman, he scuttled the proposal.

The proposal had been opposed by cable and satellite companies because it cuts off a big revenue generator with little outlay. The entertainment industry claims that piracy of media will increase if the cable box market is opened up.

The future of cable

Movies available on Apple TV


So, is Apple's deal with Spectrum a harbinger for the future? It may be, although such a future likely won't come without some legislative changes. More likely, it will involve cable companies outsourcing their cable boxes to specific manufacturers who are capable of making better boxes. The big test, though, will be how many other cable providers sign up.

Between this, and the accelerating world of cord-cutting, there's no telling what home entertainment will look like in 10-15 years. But it does appear that Apple's battle for the living room has reached a new front.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 26
    HeliBumHeliBum Posts: 39member

    I'm confused. The company name is Spectrum, but they're only mentioning Charter Spectrum. Does that leave out the Time Warner Spectrum customers?

    Also, most streaming video is not available in surround sound, only stereo. Will Charter Spectrum be able to support surround sound? DirecTV Now doesn't, except in their PPV offerings.

    edited June 6 stevenoz
  • Reply 2 of 26
    eightzeroeightzero Posts: 2,159member
    Interesting and insightful. I think there is more to the story as to "what comes next." Like iTunes and i(Apple)Books before it, Apple's strategy may be to provide an alternative to delivery through a distributor. Musicians and authros now can self publish. It looks like TV studios might soon have such an opportunity. 

    And now, we return you to the discussion about net neutrality.


    lostkiwi
  • Reply 3 of 26
    gerardgerard Posts: 38member
    I wish this setup would accelerate. Cable vision now called Altice is my provider. I download the app of any channel Available to me and watch them using my Apple TV. Everything I watch is presented front and center no worrying of changing channels. Also big bonus is if I end reaching home late for the start of my program some channels allow you to watch from the beginning instead of watching from the point the show is currently playing. This would be a god send if you could do that with sports. 
  • Reply 4 of 26
    I think the evolution of iTunes, AppleTV, Apple Music, "Apple Movies" and HomePod into a highly integrated "product" will show itself in about 2 years.  The possibilities from then on are astronomical.
    lostkiwi
  • Reply 5 of 26
    linkmanlinkman Posts: 836member
    The term crappy for these cable boxes is 100% spot-on. My previous box, some pretty small Cisco thing, existed only to convert a coax scrambled connection to HDMI, change the channel, mute, and burn a lot of electricity. The entire top was a vented grill and used as much electricity when off as when it was on. I think turning it off using the remote only muted the video/audio output and turned the LED from green to red.

    My neighbor went through the nightmare of the CableCard with his DVR. He literally had a tech from the cable company at his house every 2-3 weeks for several hours each time it stopped working. He gave up on it after more than a year of fighting it.
    airnerdlostkiwi
  • Reply 6 of 26
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,389member

    Also, this doesn't have anything to do with "cord-cutting." This Apple TV deal is meant to benefit cable subscribers and, from the cable companies' standpoint, to get them to stick with cable, rather than abandon it.
    That's why the announcement is unexciting, to this cord cutter of 5 years.
    jbdragon
  • Reply 7 of 26
    boltsfan17boltsfan17 Posts: 2,018member
    Not sure if I would want something to replace my DirecTV receiver. I don't like the idea of cloud based DVR. Internet based on demand programming from DirecTV is painfully slow, even with a fast internet connection. I imagine if DirecTV had cloud based DVR, it would be pretty slow. I wonder if cloud based DVR would force you to watch commercials like on demand programming? It's really annoying when I download an on demand show I forgot to record and then it won't let you fast forward past the commercials. 
    mike1
  • Reply 8 of 26
    mike1mike1 Posts: 1,732member
    Not sure if I would want something to replace my DirecTV receiver. I don't like the idea of cloud based DVR. Internet based on demand programming from DirecTV is painfully slow, even with a fast internet connection. I imagine if DirecTV had cloud based DVR, it would be pretty slow. I wonder if cloud based DVR would force you to watch commercials like on demand programming? It's really annoying when I download an on demand show I forgot to record and then it won't let you fast forward past the commercials. 
    My cable provider offers an old DVR box that seriously needs to be updated. That said, it is still a 10x better than the cloud-based DVR service they also offer. The cloud service is slow and laggy. Hit pause and three seconds later, it stops. Forget about trying to freeze something to get a better look.
    edited June 6
  • Reply 9 of 26
    bggalebggale Posts: 1member
    I own 6 Tivos, all with CableCards, and all with lifetime service (no monthly bill). I have been using CableCards since they first became available, and the only reason why they can be a nightmare is because the Cable Companies MAKE them a nightmare. They would much rather you rent their crappy cable boxes, so they go out of their way to send out defective cards (I always tell them to bring at least three cards) with totally untrained 'technicians'. I long ago figured out all of the tricks to make my CableCards all work properly, with much research online and extensive experience. Mine are absolutely trouble free, and on the rare occasion I actually need a 'technician' from the Cable Company for some unrelated issue, they ALWAYS first look at my household system and INSIST it can't work. After I spend about an hour talking them through how I made it work, they usually ask if they can call me if they have trouble setting up someone else's CableCard. I actually get calls fairly often from these 'technicians' asking for advice.
    jbdragonlostkiwi
  • Reply 10 of 26
    tallest skiltallest skil Posts: 43,399member
    Not sure if I would want something to replace my DirecTV receiver. I don't like the idea of cloud based DVR.
    Telecoms offer up nothing but shit interfaces, unnecessary hoops, and sub-standard services. I think if you’re not going to cut the cord yet, people should think about taking advantage of loopholes in US law. I wonder about the legality of paying for cable or satellite service, NOT USING the service at all (simply because it’s a pain to use), and then simply torrenting (WITHOUT SEEDING, WHICH IS THE ILLEGAL PART) MP4s of the shows you want to watch from (only) the channels provided to you by the service for which you pay. No ads, no DVRs, watch what you’re paying for however you want. Does this fall under the spirit of the “time shift” clause in the Copyright Act of 1976?
    edited June 6
  • Reply 11 of 26
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 5,615member
    cpsro said:

    Also, this doesn't have anything to do with "cord-cutting." This Apple TV deal is meant to benefit cable subscribers and, from the cable companies' standpoint, to get them to stick with cable, rather than abandon it.
    That's why the announcement is unexciting, to this cord cutter of 5 years.
    What’s your point? I find lots of things that don’t apply to me uninteresting...like anything to do with sports or children. What point would there be in me announcing that every time I saw something not designed for me? 
  • Reply 12 of 26
    boltsfan17boltsfan17 Posts: 2,018member
    Not sure if I would want something to replace my DirecTV receiver. I don't like the idea of cloud based DVR.
    Telecoms offer up nothing but shit interfaces, unnecessary hoops, and sub-standard services. I think if you’re not going to cut the cord yet, people should think about taking advantage of loopholes in US law. I wonder about the legality of paying for cable or satellite service, NOT USING the service at all (simply because it’s a pain to use), and then simply torrenting (WITHOUT SEEDING, WHICH IS THE ILLEGAL PART) MP4s of the shows you want to watch from (only) the channels provided to you by the service for which you pay. No ads, no DVRs, watch what you’re paying for however you want. Does this fall under the spirit of the “time shift” clause in the Copyright Act of 1976?
    I'm definitely nowhere near cutting the cord. With all the standalone options out there, it all adds up to basically the cost of your cable/satellite bill. I would say that would be considered illegal. Maybe I'm wrong, but I thought time shifting in copyright law covers recording of broadcast material for personal use. I'm not sure how that would apply to downloading the program. Something like that probably has never been challenged in court before. 
    zoetmbtallest skil
  • Reply 13 of 26
    larz2112larz2112 Posts: 219member
    bggale said:
    long ago figured out all of the tricks to make my CableCards all work properly, with much research online and extensive experience. 
    Can you share some of your top CableCard tricks? I have a CableCard in my Tivo Romio with a tuning adapter attached. Sometimes I get the "This channel is not authorized" message that goes away after a minute or so, or the screen freezes or stutters for a few seconds. The only solution that Spectrum tech support can provide is to reboot the Tivo and the tuning adapter.
  • Reply 14 of 26
    tallest skiltallest skil Posts: 43,399member
    I thought time shifting in copyright law covers recording of broadcast material for personal use. I'm not sure how that would apply to downloading the program.
    Correct! But this is simply “outsourcing” the DVR functionality. You’re paying for the content, simply not using the hardware you were given to record and watch at a later date; you’re accessing the content through your own means, and you’re also not illegally sharing it (turning seeding off–which will make your downloads crawl, granted, but is required for the “legal” aspect of bittorrent in this case). You’re also probably right that it hasn’t ever been challenged. I don’t exactly have high expectations for it to be considered legal (even though it likely is, since law is restrictive to the government, not the other way around).  :p
    boltsfan17
  • Reply 15 of 26
    rob53rob53 Posts: 1,915member
    There's no way Apple or Apple TV will replace the existing cartel of cable and satellite companies without government intervention and that isn't going to happen right now. It's interesting that Comcast is finally offering some kind of gigabit internet in my area but it doesn't seem to be available when combined with TV. I have to wonder if they have to use the entire bandwidth capability of their coax (it isn't fiber where I live) instead of splitting it between internet and TV. Comcast has become too large and borders on a monopoly or whatever you want to call a business that has too many parts involved in the delivery mechanism, creation, and distribution of internet and media. It doesn't matter if there appears to be competition because they have too many things so why would most people change even when their internet would cost less, everything else costs more or you just can't get it.

    Of course, I wouldn't mind if Apple replaced everything Comcast owned but I don't think that would be a good business decision for Apple. 
  • Reply 16 of 26
    ajmasajmas Posts: 548member
    This solution can provide zero sign on to any service an ISP wants to provide, not just IPTV. While TV and video are natural candidates, you can imagine this being used for other services, such as an app which provides announcements from you ISP or voice mail. In some regions ISPs are telcos, rather than old school cable companies.
  • Reply 17 of 26
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 29,902member
    eightzero said:
    Interesting and insightful. I think there is more to the story as to "what comes next." Like iTunes and i(Apple)Books before it, Apple's strategy may be to provide an alternative to delivery through a distributor. Musicians and authros now can self publish. It looks like TV studios might soon have such an opportunity. 

    And now, we return you to the discussion about net neutrality.


    Cutting out "middle-people" in the service of providing lower costs for Apple customers and greater artistic freedom for artists and producers would be a laudable next step for Apple. In effect, this is already being done with video content via YouTube.
  • Reply 18 of 26
    spice-boyspice-boy Posts: 605member
    I just changed my account with Spectrum after getting tired of paying $160 per month for basic cable and 100mbps internet. Dropping cable reduced the bill by $90 and I discovered there was an option for $30 per month to get about 25 Network and several cable channels which I could access via my Apple TV apps. I save $60 per month from my old bill, and could return their hideous remote and cable box saving another $10 per month. 
  • Reply 19 of 26
    thewbthewb Posts: 70member
    Zero Sign-on's predecessor Single Sign-on has yet to see support from any of the major U.S. companies except for DirecTV. That significantly tempers my expectations for Zero Sign-on. Apple can do a fantastic job making things ridiculously easy for people to watch their favorite cable channels on AppleTV but the fact remains that the cable companies don't want it to be easy.

    Over 20 years ago Congress told the FCC to tell the cable industry to kill the box rental cash cow. What followed was years of foot dragging, aided by the effective excuse of the transition to digital, until the FCC said "finalize a standard or we'll finalize one for you". The industry begrudgingly followed the letter of the law but were not at all interested in making their work feature-complete to support up and coming features such as video-on-demand. We ended up with CableCard. Several flip-flopping regime changes later, the cable industry can now do whatever they want. 20 years since it was supposed to have come to an end, renting a cable box is still the norm.

    To the cable companies, watching cable channels on AppleTV, even though that is not cord cutting because you still must subscribe to a TV package to access that content on AppleTV, is a step on a slippery slope to eventual true cord cutting, not to mention losing that sweet cash cow cable box rental revenue. But if they continue this friction, it won't end well for them: a generation of Americans who realize that the true path of least resistance is to not watch traditional TV content at all.
  • Reply 20 of 26
    jbdragonjbdragon Posts: 1,865member
    I sure as hell don't ever see Comcast going for this. They won'\t even allow like a TIVO to stream HBO using the App even though it works on AppleTV or ROKU. Not much love to Tivo. They sure as hell don't want a Apple TV replacing setup boxes and they make tons of money from those things. They buy them in huge numbers. Build them cheap and ugly and then rent them out to suckers who pay a lot of money every month for the thing which is paid off in no time flat and everything past that is gravy for them.
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