Cable Boxes And Their Fisher Price Remotes Are Junk. Demand Better.

About a year ago, I had enough. I was so sick of putting up with Comcast’s ridiculous rates for terrible service that I decided to cancel everything but the Internet. Truth be told, I kept basic cable only because it was cheaper to keep it with my Internet package then to not keep it. But I never watched it. For all intents and purposes I was cable-free. Most importantly, that meant removing the cable box from my life as the filter between me and content on my television. I thought I would miss it. I did not. At all.

Fast forward to now: I recently moved, and luckily enough my apartment isn’t held captive under Comcast’s dominion. So I decided to try cable once again, just to see if it was as bad as I remembered it. My new service is substantially cheaper, so that’s nice, but all in all, the song remains the same. It’s absolute crap from an end user perspective. And yet we put up with it.

The Box

Almost all of us likely have a cable box. Turn it on. Just look at that user interface. Yes, it’s probably more or less the same one you’ve been looking at for the past 10 years, if not longer. It probably has some blue in there, probably some green, maybe a little red if they’re rebellious. The icons look like crap and the text is often hard to read.

I would make a joke about our phones having nicer UIs, except that our phones now have UIs that must be a thousand times nicer. Maybe a million.

dvr_motorola_dct6412_medIn fact, I can’t think of any digital device today that has a worse UI. And this is probably many peoples’ most-used device. And it’s not just that it looks awful, it’s slow. There are delays that simply shouldn’t be there when moving between channels or navigating the menus. We’re talking half-seconds to multiple seconds, but all of that time adds up and severely hampers the experience.

I don’t think I’m going to get much disagreement in saying that Motorola, which makes many of these boxes that cable companies use, should have been fired a long, long time ago for these miserable things. But of course, the cable companies don’t care. Most of them have strangleholds (shhh don’t say “monopoly”) over their communities, and know that consumers have very little choice, and so the cable companies go for these cheapest option boxes.

The Remote

As bad as the cable boxes are, their remotes may be worse.

Most TVs nowadays are slick pieces of hardware, and their accompanying remotes are also pretty slick. I’d love to use one someday, unfortunately they’re all pretty useless because the cable company forces their cable box on you and then makes you use their awful remotes. I’ve seen a lot of cable boxes in my time, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a remote for one of them that doesn’t look like it was developed by Fisher Price.

Those huge, ugly, rubbery buttons. The cable company branding. The absurd number of extra buttons. These things are nightmares. And while there are some nice universal remote solutions, let’s be honest, most people are never going to get those. Others will say, “Get a TiVo.” It does have a great remote, but again, why would people get yet another box for the living room when the DVR through the cable company is cheaper (though much, much worse)? So they are stuck using the Fisher Price variety. Like I am. Look mom, I can use TV too!


The Offerings

I’m not going to go into the various aspects of why cable companies overall content offering are bad. That could be a number of posts all by itself. I will say that it’s an absolutely joke that we still have no a-la-carte options. That is to say, no way to pick just the channels you want to get without being forced to have literally hundreds now that you could care less about.

The Catalysts

If the cable companies had their way, none of this would ever change. Just look at Comcast. We’re in the midst of a horrible recession and yet Comcast’s profits increased by an amazing 53% last quarter. Why? Well a small sliver may be attributed to the fact that in tough times people turn to entertainment to get away, but the real story is that Comcast jacked up prices. Again, because they could.

But I’m going hold out hope that services like Verizon FIOS and others can continue spreading, and put pressure on these cable companies to actually work towards improving their offerings, rather than improving their bottom-lines.

apple-tv-2While Apple’s iPhone is not everyone’s cup of tea, there is no denying that it significantly changed the wireless landscape in this country. Just a couple of years ago I was using a RAZR phone, and that was considered fairly high tech for the U.S. Today, that would be considered laughable.

The iPhone and the subsequent smartphones that followed have forced change to improve the state of the industry from an end-user perspective. Before it, the carriers ruled with an iron fist. Now, companies like Apple and Google are starting to have a say.

I hope the same thing is possible in the cable industry. It will be harder to initiate this change because various providers do have many areas on lockdown. In wireless, most consumers had a choice of which provider to go with. In cable, most don’t have that choice. Sure, some opt for satellite, but again, that’s not an option for a lot of people.

The Compromise

But forget the service, let’s even just improve the cable boxes. It’s no secret that the Apple TV hasn’t exactly been a big success for Apple. Maybe it’s time for them to stray from the go-it-alone approach and instead talk with cable providers about making boxes for them. Do I believe that will actually ever happen? No, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility as it is a similar idea to what they’ve done with the iPhone in wireless.

Apple could use its box to get a foot into the cable business. The box could have a DVR, full access to a cable company’s content, but also access to iTunes. Would the cable companies ever go for that and give up their pay-per-view business? Probably not, but maybe a smaller one would be willing to take a gamble on it. An maybe that in turn would force others to at the very least improve their rubbish hardware.

slingbox-7It’s a pipe dream, but it’s one that I’m going to keep on dreaming every time I turn on my TV. I look at my cable box’s UI versus the UI on my Apple TV or my Xbox 360 and I just shake my head. Two of them look like modern, sexy services, the other looks like it was designed in the 70s or 80s — probably because it was.

And why on Earth do cable boxes have to be so big? There is technology now to use CableCARD (even though no one suspiciously seems to be using them), and yet we need these gigantic boxes?

Myself and others have ranted about this topic before, with elaborate plans to bring about change, but nothing ever seems to change. That’s why I think now a very simple goal is important — Cable companies: Get decent cable boxes with non-Fischer Price remotes, or get out of my living room, again.