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A Quest for the Ultimate Set-Top-Box Device

Most people's relationship with their pay-TV service starts and ends with the remote-control device associated with the box that connects to their television set. Clearly, it's a key part of the overall user experience.

As revenue from traditional television set-top box (STB) sales declines along with demand in the period 2008 to 2012, STB vendors will initially rely on firmer markets for DBS (Digital Broadcast Satellite), IPTV (Internet Protocol Television), and DTT (Digital Terrestrial Television) devices.

However, according to a market study from ABI Research, by the end of the decade even those sectors will be under pressure from alternative technologies being introduced to facilitate the connected home, and vendors will have to add new features and functions in order to revive flagging shipment numbers.

"The development of two-way digital cable-ready TVs, residential gateways, media centers, and even video capabilities on gaming systems will put the STB status at risk," says research analyst Paulhwa Lee.

STB manufacturers are responding in several ways. First, they are adding new features -- more hard-disk space, DVD players, DVD burners, home audio solutions, and others. They're also attempting to improve electronic program guides and to incorporate more Web-based services and video gaming.

STB vendors are also moving more aggressively into the hybrid STB market. Hybrid STBs offer a single solution to a number of possible problems caused by the multiplicity of video sources and distribution platforms.

Lee concludes ABI's assessment with a prediction for STB vendors. "No one video or television technology will be a dominant force in the next few years. So as this market flattens towards the end of our forecast period in 2012, STB vendors would be well advised to incorporate as many of those technologies as possible into their products."

I believe that adding features and capabilities could have a detrimental effect on the user experience. Why? More features usually equates to more buttons on the remote control, which in turn results in added user complexity. That would be a step backwards.

Once again, where there are challenges, there are also opportunities for innovation. Vendors would be wise to consider the human factors issues that often arise from poorly designed consumer electronics products.

Therefore, the ultimate set-top box should incorporate simplicity, by design. Usability requirements must guide STB product development.

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