Why We're Stuck With Bad Cable Boxes

I sympathize with MG Siegler’s complaint that cable boxes and the remotes they come with are cheap, badly designed junk. We’ve got two Comcast boxes in our home, and they’re badly designed both as hardware and software: Big and ugly, unwieldy, and with matching poorly designed software, the best you can say about them is that they’re basically functional.

Siegler suggests that, just as Apple, Google, and Blackberry shook up the mobile phone market, taking power from carriers and giving it to device makers, maybe the same thing could happen in the cable box market. Problem is, there’s been an elegant, smartly designed solution from an outside manufacturer on the market for years, but it’s never become more than a niche product.

Yes, I’m talking about TiVo, which is everything that Comcast’s ugly gray boxes are not. In particular, TiVo offers sleek, smart menu design — something to which the cable carriers seem deeply opposed (it might prevent them from stuffing the menus with ads!).

The problem with TiVo is that, for most people, it’s just too expensive for what it offers. As I said, as bad as Comcast’s boxes are, they’re more or less functional. They get the job done (if rather inelegantly). We’ve got one, but most people aren’t willing to shell out a couple hundred dollars plus a subscription fee just for a nicer looking box and better menus. Ours is a legacy product from before we lived together, and if we didn’t already have a lifetime subscription, I’m not sure we’d choose to stick with it.

Add in the fact that owning a TiVo makes cable installation more of a pain (at least when you’ve got Comcast), and they can make it impossible to access some on-demand features, and it’s just not worth the hassle. Perhaps if someone could bring the price down — I imagine the price threshold would have to be under $150 with no subscription fee for it to really catch on — we might see improvements in this field. But for now, my sense is that we’re stuck with whatever Comcast and Time Warner and the rest of the cable companies give us.