Walter Ciciora
Walter S. Ciciora,
Ph.D., Recognized
Industry Expert on
Cable and Consumer
Electronics Issues
I use a DVD player and a VCR with my treadmill to make exercise tolerable. I buy courses from The Teaching Company ( to watch on my DVD player and VCR. These courses are so interesting, I actually look forward to using the treadmill. Unfortunately, there aren't any electronics tutorials; but there are science courses. Recently, the DVD player (about four or five years old) started misbehaving. Interestingly, it still played audio CDs just fine. So it was moved into the dining room to provide background music from CDs. This necessitated a visit to the consumer electronics section of the local warehouse super store to replace the DVD.

A shock awaited me. The discount store did not have a stand-alone DVD player. It also did not have a stand-alone VCR. The last time I bought a VCR at that store, it was a major brand and cost only $69. I guess the price got so inexpensive, the margin on the sale didn't justify the cost of carrying the unit. Also, the VCR came with a note informing me that the store would not take back a defective unit. It would have to be sent to the address provided. The cost of handling a replacement unit exceeded the allowed margin on the product.

I found that a major brand combination DVD player and VCR cost only $119. That surprised me. The VCR was full-featured. It had everything you'd ever want in a VCR, with just one exception. (I'll get to that later.) Of course it had a full "cable-ready" tuner for analog reception, stereo sound, a very fast rewind, "high-quality" audio, etc. And the clock set itself using VBI codes from the local PBS station. No more blinking 12:00! The DVD player was amazing as well. It had both interlaced and progressive scan outputs. It had electrical (baseband and channel 3 or 4) and optical audio outputs. The player did multiple audio CD formats including MP3 and Super Audio. The DVD player had a unique feature that particularly suited my use for lectures. It could play back at 1.4 times normal speed while processing the audio so the pitch didn't change. I could get through the lectures more quickly, while understanding the sound. The VCR could internally connect to the DVD player to make a tape copy, as long as the disc wasn't copy protected. There were features galore.

Only one feature was missing. The remote control was not a "universal remote," so I had to continue to use the television receiver's remote to control volume and turn the TV on. The remote that came with the player would control receivers of the same brand as the player, but not competitor's receivers. That struck me as strange, given all of the other features of the player. One has to wonder how the decision was made to not include this useful and convenient feature. Universal remote control technology is old hat and dirt cheap. There couldn't be measurable savings from not including it. The cost of the extra pages in the manual had to exceed the cost of the extra silicon. In fact, it is likely the silicon is common to other remote controls and therefore has the feature, but it is disabled for some unknown reason.

As usual, the manual was a mess. I can't imagine how someone without a basic understanding of these things could learn how to use the machine from the manual. A consequence is that most of the features on most of the units sold have to go unused.

Quite recently, my wife and I went out to dinner at a nice French restaurant, and the bill exceeded the cost of the combination DVD player and VCR. Not too long ago, we took one of our children and her spouse out to dinner at a mid-range restaurant. That bill also exceeded the cost of the player. Contemplating the sophistication of the technology in that player leads to amazement. Not only are there millions (literally) of transistors in the very large scale integrated circuits, but the mechanics are pretty astonishing as well. Precision tolerances are required to operate the disc on the DVD side and the tape transport on the VCR side. The mechanical challenges are alleviated by putting them under sophisticated servo mechanisms which have their own microcomputer control.

The first Betamax VCRs came to the U.S. in 1975. They didn't have a flashing 12:00 problem because they didn't have a clock. A mechanical clock with a relay sold separately for more than today's VCRs. That first VCR sold for about $1,200. The first sophisticated cable set-top boxes sold for between $120 and $150 in 1981. I was involved with the sale of Zenith's set-top boxes in that time frame and understood the costs of production and distribution. At that time, I concluded that nothing electronic could be sold for less than $100. Today, all of that has changed.

The lessons here for cable technologists start with a resolve to take advantage of the capabilities of the consumer electronics industry when implementing services and their supporting hardware. If a set-top box could be produced in huge quantities, almost anything seems possible. A second lesson is that the user interface needs to be intuitive. It is very hard to write a manual that conveys the instructions for the use of all of the features that can be included at almost no cost. It may be even harder to motivate a consumer to read the manual. Emphasis should be placed on making those features which sell services to be as intuitive as possible. Otherwise, those features will be ignored, with the consequence that the associated services will be unsold.

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