Want a Better Cable Box? It’s Free!

RDK is a software platform for set-top cable boxes that allows operators to seamlessly add new features

To quote Joe MacMillan, AMC’s new anti-hero on Halt and Catch Fire, “Are you ready to be more?” Well, your cable box definitely is.

Spearheaded through a joint effort by industry heavyweights Comcast and Time Warner, a new technology called RDK has relatively simple goals, but its implications are nothing short of transformational: to turn your television into a software platform.

“The future of cable is not like its past,” Comcast SVP Marcien Jenckes told The Verge.

That’s an understatement. For most cable boxes, everything from the channel guide to the user interface is hardcoded directly onto the hardware at the manufacturer—whether it’s Cisco or Arris. To roll out a new feature usually means dispatching technicians to update or replace the physical product.

RDK changes all of that. Think of it as software that lives inside your cable box and grants developers access to the underlying components. The functionality of the cable box becomes much broader, and adding features is more akin to updating the software on your smartphone—it’s just the push of a button.

While it’s up to service providers to decide what features are available on an RDK-enabled box, Comcast’s X1 box bakes in everything from Facebook and Twitter to Pandora and Rotten Tomatoes. X1 users can also pair their box to a smartphone app and dictate commands and search strings rather than relying solely on the remote control.

“By building a standardized software stack, operators can accelerate the deployment of next-gen video products and services,” says Jason Briggs, senior director, licensing & strategic development of RDK Management.

“For example, the X1 platform relies on the RDK and offers new user interfaces, features, and applications across multiple platforms thanks to the underlying technology.

“The RDK also allows operators to easily fix issues that might have historically required a truck roll.”

Many subscribers are already leveraging the benefits of RDK through Comcast’s X1 platform, which is free on triple-play accounts. The X1 has such a robust feature set that some are beginning to question whether it renders the newly released XBox One’s TV features obsolete. That’s open to debate, but one thing is certain: RDK will only get better.

Since the platform is a royalty-free distribution of shared source components and its license is free, RDK community members are limited only by their imagination in developing new and unique implementations. So far, many of the world’s leading manufacturers—from Cisco to Samsung—have thrown their hats into the ring and are currently developing RDK solutions.