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Will People Really Keep Buying Set-Top Boxes?

Traditional cable TV boxes aren't going anywhere, but neither are stand-alone, Internet-connected set-top boxes that allow viewers to watch Netflix or Hulu Plus.

Experts now estimate that manufacturers will ship twice as many set-top boxes — both traditional cable boxes and Internet-connected ones like Rokus and Apple TVs — in 2017 as they do today.

The information comes by way of Information Handling Services (IHS), an Englewood, Colo.-based company that provides analytics for the tech sector.

There are approximately 65.8 million set-top boxes in the world today, of which 26 percent are "connected," or possess the ability to connect to the Internet to stream content. The rest are standard cable boxes.

IHS predicts that by 2017, this number will increase to 125.6 million, roughly 57 million (45 percent) of which will be connected.

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In order to reach these numbers, IHS posits that the market for set-top boxes will grow by a staggering 91 percent over the next four years.

Also worth noting is that while the company expects the lion's share of these set-top boxes to ship to North America, Asia's interest in set-top boxes is growing the most quickly of any region's.

One important distinction to keep in mind is that the number of units shipped does not correspond to the number of units sold: Unless a product is a massive hit, far more units are shipped than are actually sold, so 125.6 million set-top boxes shipped does not mean that 125.6 million people will own or use them.

Furthermore, the data are based on observed trends between 2009 and 2013. IHS predicts that the set-top-box market will continue to grow at a steady rate similar to that of the last four years.

This may be the case, but the rate of growth could just as easily explode if people decide they can't live without set-top boxes, or crash if people embrace a newer, better technology.

As Wall Street investment prospectuses like to say, "Past performance does not indicate future success."

IHS provides one potential vision of set-top boxes in the near future — and a rosy one, at that. Keeping an eye on how various markets embrace "connected" set-top boxes will speak volumes about the changing habits of TV viewers in the next five years.

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