Apple’s set-top-box plans include cloud DVR

Apple’s (s AAPL) plans to turn its Apple TV into a cable set-top box involve a cloud DVR feature that would allow viewers to tune into shows any time they want, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal. Other demands made by Apple apparently include extended windows for VOD content.

The Journal didn’t share many details about planned features for the cloud DVR offering, which makes it hard to judge what exactly Apple may have in mind. The paper said that including such a feature would force Apple to negotiate further rights with broadcasters in addition to its ongoing negotiations with cable operators.

However, there are two competing models for a cloud-based content offering that Apple could take cues from:

  • Cablevision(s CVC) offers its subscribers a network DVR, which offers TiVo-like(s TIVO) capabilities in the cloud. The service allows customers time-shifting, which includes jumping back to the beginning of a show. However, there are limits: Cablevision’s DVR Plus offering comes with four tuners, so subscribers aren’t able to “start any show at any time,” as the Wall Street Journal suggested. On the upside, Cablevision’s DVR offering has been deemed legal by the Supreme Court and doesn’t require additional licenses.
  • Time Warner Cable on the other hand theoretically offers viewers the ability to jump back to the start of any program they tune in with its Start Over feature, but the offering is limited to channels that the operator has agreements with. These vary by market. Customers in Los Angeles, for example, can “start over” on programs from ABC, (s DIS) CBS (s CBS) and NBC, (s CMCSK) but not FOX. (s NWS) And the need for negotiations with individual affiliates meant that it took Time Warner Cable years to roll out the service in all of its markets.

If Apple were to launch a cloud DVR, it would have to pick its poison: Either launch a true cloud-based DVR service that would have limited access to programming, or begin long and painful negotiations with local affiliates. Either way, it would likely end up with something that may sound revolutionary on paper, but would in practice look an awful lot like existing pay TV services.