The Story of CableLabs Certification

If you listen to this weeks Media
Center Show
you heard Kevin Shields explain how
the “certification” process will kind-of work. 
Here’s a quick summary of both what Kevin said on the show and what I
have learned over the past few weeks from my sources.

As Kevin said for OEM’s to ship a PC with CableCARD support
they will need to be actual OEM Partners with Microsoft.  You can tell if a PC manufacturer is an OEM
Partner most of the time if the see the OEM Logo on their website.  For example, Niveus Media has the “Microsoft
Platinum OEM” logo their website so they can offer PC’s with CableCARD which
they have already announced.  System
Builders need not apply, so if you are like me and have a dummy System Builder
account from www.microsoft.com/oem
(which are free) you can’t get the needed license to have a PC with working
CableCARD.

Now, about the certification crap.  Let’s take a quick trip to what got us here,
including some quotes from Microsoft Exectuives.

When
Thomas Hawk had dinner with Jim Allchin
, Thomas walked away with this “Although Vista
has been approved, OEMs will in fact still need to get their individual
machines certified by CableLabs as well.” 
Now, those are Thomas words, not Jim’s but it was Allchin who
explained the process to Thomas.

Next we
have what Anand from Anandtech e-mailed me with
saying “The OCUR device
itself is the only thing that is actually certified by CableLabs.”
 
Thanks to Anand for this.

Lastly
we have the Stephen Speicher chat with Joe Belfiore
where Joe said “The other part is that the entire system as
shipped by the OEM has to be, for the purposes of this discussion, “certified.”
The PC vendor has to notify CableLabs of the model of the PC that will be
“Digital Cable Ready” and indicate that its entire system from the graphics
card to the OCUR will support what is needed for things like the Emergency
Broadcast System.”

Could just be me, but the two quotes from the Microsoft
Executives sure sounded like the “whole PC” would need to be sent to CableLabs
and “certified” before it could be sold. 
I went
over the cost to have a device “cerifited” by CableLabs early this
year
and of course this added fuel to the fire.

Cut to today, and there doesn’t seem to be a certification process
for the whole PC though CableLabs!  Only
ATI has to get the OCUR itself certified through CableLabs, but don’t get
excited about building your own machine yet, it’s still not going to happen.

As per above, you still need to be a Microsoft OEM Partner
to get “everything” you would need to activate the OCUR for use in Windows
Vista.  Buying an OCUR off of eBay isn’t
going to cut it people.

So, after our year of waiting and some less then great
quotes from the people leading the teams there isn’t a PC certification process afterall
(Yay!).  However, you still can’t build
your own PC with CableCARD support
and it’s not likely you will ever be able
too.

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27 thoughts on “The Story of CableLabs Certification

  1. But can you buy an OEM certified machine and still be able to open it and upgrade pieces of it?

    If I can’t build my own machine, I would want to buy the cheapest (or refurbished) certified machine I could and then add my own upgrades.

    Should I be able to do that and still keep the CableCard support?

  2. Though I don’t know for sure (any OEM friends out there know, feel free to chip in) I don’t see it being a problem (personally).

    Of course changing the motherboard or CPU might be a big exception (more the motherboard then the CPU).

    I assume if you were to upgrade the graphics card that would be fine, as long as your not “downgrading” it to–say–something that doesn’t support HDCP.

  3. So what exactly does “everything” mean? Is there something special about the version of Vista that these OEM partners will be using?

  4. Yes there will be something special about the version of Vista (more or less). At this point I will not say what because I’ve heard it various places (one of which I might be under an implied NDA still?? I don’t know).

    I know there are others out there that know what’s “special”, I’ll let them comment if they want. If not, once a OCUR ships I’ll be glad to talk about it.

  5. Man, I have to tell you I’ve become so jaded on this whole CableCARD thing. I really wish it was made just alittle easier for all of us DIYers. I for one don’t want to deal with getting an OEM system just for this.

  6. Majority of MCE pc’s that actually have the MCE function used are owned by DIYers.

    Without a way for DIYers to make use of the “Protected Digital Cable” (AKA: ATI OCUR) hardware it will be never sell well. Cablelabs needs to certify the OCUR as a device not the PC. Even cable companies are becoming cynical with CableLabs. They take too long to certify hardware. The are trying to squeeze the OCUR device into their TV test model and it won’t work.

  7. There must be some type of driver or digital key that the OEM installs in the OCUR device when the build digital cable ready Vista MC’s. And then the premium content that the OCUR allows into Vista Media Center will need to be stored as encrypted files.

    Perhaps recorded using WMV with DRM protection as opposed to the DVR-MS files used now? But if the recorded video is encrypted, that certainly decreases the usabilty of the Media Center experience. No cutting out commercials and burning to a DVD. No transcoding to smaller Divx format. Not even recording a show for a friend with a Media Center, and giving it to him on a data DVD.

    And since a new PC is mandatory to have a CableCard equipped Media Center, then a Series 3 HDTV Tivo with a few years worth of service will be a cheaper alternative.

  8. What I was told by eHome reps at Digital Life was similar to what Albert mentioned. There is a key that must be unlocked to enable the cable card support. That key is only given to OEM’s to hand out with machines. Currently there doesn’t appear to be any way to get that key indepently. Further what I am curious about is whether the key can be expanded to support multiple OCUR devices, or will we be limited to one (or two) streams.

  9. Right. This process is an abomination. We (and by we, I mean the government without out the peoples express permission) have given a private company power over what can receive cable signal. A power that clearly should reside with a non biased not for profit group like say the FCC (Ok well I guess you can scratch the unbiased part off, but stil…). This system clearly needs to be obliterated along with with cablelabs, there is no conceivable reason for their existence in the modern world other then to protect an incumbent monopoly, which is totally insane and completely unneeded in todays market place. Somebody get an antitrust violation rolling on these guys.

  10. Hey guys, I deleted someone’s comment without publishing it (auto marked as spam).

    I didn’t get a good look at it, so if you posted a comment and don’t see if please repost!

    Thanks!

    Chris

  11. Griffon

    CableLabs IS a “nonprofit research and development consortium”. IIRC it was formed because of the FCC wanted an outside organization to handle it.

  12. You won’t be able to enable CableCard even if you have a OCUR device in your hands. You need a seperate COA (license key) to activate it and the motherboard will have a cablecard bit that needs to be enabled. Only OEMs can get this COA.

    This is not Microsoft’s fault. It is CableLabs who said it is this or nothing to Microsoft.

    This is something that should be brought to the Federal Trade Commission’s attention (not FCC). This could be considered a “boycott” (maybe?) that resticts competitors from entering the market. (http://www.ftc.gov/bc/compguide/illegal.htm). However, by the time the FTC actually got around to hearing the case and adjudicating, I’m sure the next big thing in cable access already by released…

  13. (Reposted)

    I listened to the podcast with Kevin Shields, and it left me very suspicious of the whole deal. I expected to hear about the certification process, instead most of what I heard was about how you had to buy your Windows MCE licenses directly from Microsoft (presumably in a large volume) rather than through a third party like most of us do.

    Has anyone acutally confirmed that this whole “certify the whole PC at Cable Labs” process actually exists? Has anyone talked to Cable Labs? What does Niveus say?

    I’m beginning to wonder if the certification of the whole PC is an urban legend. It seems very possible that what actually happens is that Cable Labs certifies the OCUR device only (like Anand said) and then Microsoft gives out licenses to its “preferred partners” on some basis that hasn’t got squat to do with the hardware.

    @Insider: how do you know all this, and, if true, is there any chance a company like Shuttle will be allowed to come to our rescue with CableCard enabled barebone systems?

  14. Ah! So you need a special COA and mobo for it to work. Wow, what a way to alienate your customer base but there isn’t much that can be done since it’s CableLabs.

    Thats really too bad.

  15. So according to the Vista help files (for Home Premium and Ultimate) user’s will be able to connect future “Digital Cable Tuners” via USB to Vista, but as the blog suggests only to certified Vista PCs marked as “Digital Cable Ready”.

    Snippet:
    Connect the Digital Cable Tuner to your Windows Media Center computer via the USB 2.0 port using an A/B USB cable. To ensure that the Digital Cable Tuner is able to receive premium cable content, be sure to connect the Digital Cable Tuner to a specially-marked Digital Cable ReadyWindows Media Center computer.

    Full URL:
    http://windowshelp.microsoft.com/Windows/en-US/Help/aa79e7b4-e423-4459-ad22-1c240a8ffcd51033.mspx

  16. Chris, you say ‘Correct’ to Alberto, but you say we won’t be able to buy an OCUR device by itself. Would an OCUR device be different from a USB Digital Cable Tuner then? How else would we be able to connect a digital tuner via USB?

    If there was going to be an external USB digital tuner available, it would presumably have to use some kind of DRM over the USB wire. Is that possible? Is there a PVP technology spec’d for data transfer over USB?

    Thanks, Ross.

  17. OCUR = USB Digital CableCARD Tuner (Digital Cable Tuner)

    As the quote puts out, “be sure to connect the Digital Cable Tuner to a specially-marked Digital Cable Ready Windows Media Center computer.”

    The OCUR will connect to the computer via USB, either external or internal through basic USB headers.

    These “specially-marked Digital Cable Ready Windows Media Center computer(s)” are the OEM PC’s that will be sold with the OCUR’s.

    Before you can get the OCUR (Digital Cable Tuner), you must purchase the whole PC from an OEM that will ship with the OCUR.

    WMDRM is used to secure the content, mixed with PVP.

  18. Perhaps a bit off-topic, but somewhat related:

    As far as I know, the OCUR is a QAM tuner which uses a cablecard to handle encrypted channels. What about the unencrypted QAM channels which represent local broadcast stations? These are typically the only channels I really care about…

    I know using OTA ATSC tuners will work in even MCE 2005 (and hence no need for a Vista upgrade), but OTA has its own set of reception challenges for many people. That leaves a cable connection: How do Vista users get these unencrypted channels into Media Center?

    This whole digital-ready PC situation is really frustrating. It penalizes the common user who bought an OEM MCE machine for thousands, and forces them to buy a new OEM “digital-ready” PC for thousands more. It penalizes the small OEM system builder by locking them out of legitimate markets. It penalizes the DIY enthusiast from innovating and building a machine that goes beyond what OEMs offer.

  19. How would you add multiple QAM/OCUR tuners? The “Digital Cable Ready PC” that you bought is likely to only come with 1. Would you be forced to buy them from the OEM or could you go down to the local electronics store and get some extra USB 2.0 QAM/OCUR tuners?

    It really makes no sense to require a special PC, BIOS, motherboard, etc. It only makes sense to have certified tuner cards/boxes and certified/signed drivers, since it not only allows the user to have a choice of tuners and PCs, but it make support a lot easier (what happens if you need to repair the PC, or reinstall the OS?).

    All this makes me want to do is stay with old analog cable and not get screwed over for thousands of dollars and/or get stuck with a less than functional Media Center.

  20. ok, just for theory’s sake:
    So what you need to activate CableCard on Vista MCE:
    1. The OCUR Device
    2. The COA key
    3. The “special” motherboard with the OCUR bit set
    4. Possibly an unlocked version of the Vista MCE OS (although that might be taken care of with point #2)

    So if I was hell-bent on maintaining my spiffy fanless HTPC case (the mcubed one for those interested), I in theory COULD:
    1. Find a MCE PC maker that builds a MCE PC with the motherboard that I want and order this complete “Digital Ready Vista MCE Computer”.
    2. Transfer the relevant computer innards (sounds like just the motherboard, Hard Drive [for the OS], and OCUR device) to my existing HTPC case and components.

    In theory that would work right? (Cost and practicality not a factor at the moment, just trying to see if it’s possible).

  21. Transfering the core componets and making your own upgrades doesnt seem to be much of an issue for me, my only problem is the fact that the computer manufaturer (dell/HP) will put all of their programs into Media Center (HP imagezone, etc.)

  22. Wow, talk about crushing defeat. I’m a young programmer, and for the past couple months have been working on starting a small HTPC building biz. I thought I could offer a low-priced, versatile, fun machine for the average person to enjoy digital content (including cable). My personal machines are full of illegal OSs, apps, music, etc.. But I figured, hey, if I’m going to sell these things I should do it legally, that must be possible (althought I’ve never tried it). I’ve called MSFT, looked in all the legal channels. And this is what I find. It’s really discouraging, and honestly makes me feel stupid for even considering that I could start something new.. legally. Thanks for the information nonetheless.

  23. People need to lobby. This doesn’t just affect MCE, remember all those users out there running third-party DVR software, and all those people not running Windows at all! CableLabs was setup by the government, it can be changed by the government. People need to contact their Congressmen, the FCC, even CableLabs, and anyone else you think can help. Get others on your side. If individuals do it, it might help. Get a few companies involved and it goes a bit further. There are many small HTPC companies out there who are not MS partners who want to provide this product. They can’t right now. Convince them to help lobby for a change! We should express our dissatisfication to the Linux community (I assume someone like Red Hat could invest some time/effort in lobbying if they believe this is a marketable feature), and express dissatisfication to both ATI and Microsoft. Convince them that they could make more money if they convince the government to change the policy.

    In any case, I’m convinced this will be broken pretty quickly. A motherboard bit? Sounds like a hacked BIOS can take care of that. I can’t possibly imagine it relies on hardware. How does Niveus plan to offer upgrades? Did they get detailed specs long before everyone else and manage to get hardware out there possibly even before OCUR support was announced? It has to be software. A special COA? Uhh, don’t think someone’s gonna get around that? People have been hacking the MS licensing stuff pretty easily. I’m sure someone will crack this eventually. I mean, someone already found the keys necessary for HDDVD and BluRay encryption. I’m sure they’ll get this too!

    I’m all for doing it legally, however, if (and presumably when) someone hacks it, and the digital cable world doesn’t come to an end, it’s possible that CableLabs will open it up.

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