Open Source STB: Wave of the Future or Guaranteed Flop?

Over the past few years, the set-top box industry has been nothing short of a disaster. In addition to Digeo, makers of the Moxi DMR, cutting its workforce in half and ditching most of its products, TiVo — the world’s most popular DVR company — lost almost $48 million last year, easily eclipsing the company’s $34 million loss in 2006. And with cable companies offering the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD for only a few dollars each month, most companies are forced to sell set-top boxes for practically nothing.

With that in mind, AHT has announced the release of its first open source set-top box. Dubbed Tribbox, the device will run you about 310 euros ($453) and can be plugged into any existing home network via Ethernet. But unlike its competitors, the Tribbox is designed with both consumers and OEMs in mind. According to the company, companies can develop a full-fledged set-top box with the pre-installed Linux OS, and because it’s an open-source device, consumers can create a GUI and an “embedded system, media center, car entertainment system or whatever!”

Of course, the company is also quick to mention that the Tribbox is not necessarily a set-top box, noting that it doesn’t include a hard drive out of the box. Instead, you’ll be forced to find your own SATA hard drive and connect it with the help of the included cables.

Regardless, can an open source set-top box survive and succeed in an environment where companies are practically forced to sell devices at a loss just to compete?

Sure, the Tribbox may cost almost $400 less than the TiVo, but it’s still over $400, and the chances of someone buying this device are slim when a well-known and well-received device like the TiVo is sitting right next to it. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to find that same TiVo much cheaper on Amazon.

Sadly, we’ve entered a stage in this industry where the set-top box may only be revolutionized by large companies that have the money to invest in research and can afford to charge much less than TiVo. Is the Tribbox idea a good one? To some extent. But are people truly willing to pay that much for a device that won’t even work the way they want it to out of the box and requires Linux and developing knowledge as a pre-requisite for use?

Try as it might, the open source set-top box is dead in the water until it can create a compelling reason for us to consider it. Until then, enjoy your TiVo.

Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who covers everything from Google to HDTVs. He currently writes for over 15 popular technology publications, including CNET’s Digital Home, InformationWeek and Future Publishing in the UK.