Thursday, December 10, 2009

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Why TiVo needs to stay around… and probably won’t

I love(d) my TiVos. I’m on my second one, and they’re truly marvelous devices. Sadly, TiVo has been bleeding subscribers lately, losing more than 300,000 subscribers in the quarter ending October, 2009. This isn’t because its service is any less marvelous, it’s because of a couple factors, both relating to the increase in digital television.

I recently upgraded to FIOS, which like most cable TV service today is digitally-based. The challenge with digital delivery is that it MUST be decoded electronically, usually by a converter box of some kind, not just a tuner. With analog services, you could plug a coaxial cable into damn near anything – a TV, a VCR, a TiVo, whatever – and as long as it had a TV-tuner in it, it could translate the signal into TV shows for you. With any sort of digital delivery, that “plug and play” option totally disappears. It doesn’t even matter whether the signal quality is in standard definition or high definition. And it sucks in several key ways. Fear not, I’ll bring this back around to TiVo in just a moment.

The reasons that it sucks include the fact that I now have an additional remote control on my coffee table. None of the remotes are entirely interchangeable, so I need all four of them. That’s right, four. One for my TiVo, one for my Escient Fireball DVD manager, one for my Marantz receiver, and a new one for my fancy-schmantzy digital cable box.

Next reason: I have a fancy-schmantzy digital cable box. I don’t want it, and preferred not to have it, but if I wanted to switch to FIOS (and the cost savings compared to my existing cable/internet/phone service was too significant to pass up), I had to endure the additional piece of equipment on top of all the other components of my entertainment center.

Next reason: the cable box is a gate-keeper for the digital signal, and it’s the only thing that can control what signal goes to my equipment. This means that my TV can’t just choose a channel – it needs to ask the set-top box to select that channel and send it to the TV. The box has turned all of my equipment into beggars. My TiVo, for instance, can ask that the set-top box select a channel, but the set-top box doesn’t know why, and it doesn’t understand that TiVo is trying to record that channel. So if somebody changes the channel manually, suddenly the TiVo isn’t recording what it thought it was recording anymore. It’s becoming increasingly problematic to record things on the TiVo.

Moreover, my Series 2 TiVo used to have dual-tuner capability, but the second tuner won’t work at all with a digital signal, even if the set-top box were smart enough to feed two different channels to the TiVo when instructed. Which it’s not. In fact, the FIOS DVR kind of sucks.

First, I’d like to list the features that I think make the TiVo a wonderful device. Then I’ll bash the FIOS box for its failure to live up to them.

My TiVo has dual tuners that, when functional, was a wonderful feature. You never needed to see a message that “TiVo wants to change the channel to tape some other show right now” because it would just use the other tuner. You never had to worry about whether two shows were on at the same time, or overlapped – the two tuners just handled it. It was really hassle-free.

TiVo also has an incredible capacity. Even the base-model TiVos will record dozens of shows, while the higher-end units, like mine, had hundreds of hours of recording time. I used this, for instance, to record a slew of shows last fall when I was insanely busy at work. In some cases, I recorded entire seasons of shows that I just didn’t have the time or energy to watch. Then I went back and watched them over the summer when there was nothing else on. This was only possible because I had so much spare capacity.

But what was most significant about the TiVo unit was that it worked really well. The interface was intuitive and very easy to navigate. All the information you wanted was at your fingertips, and controlling the playback and recording of shows was effortless.

Now for the FIOS box. It can record a paltry 40 hours of standard-definition programming, and a mere 20 hours of HD. That’s borderline insulting, given the absurdly low cost of hard-disk storage these days. It does have dual tuners, which is nice, but how useful that feature is is severely limited by the recording capacity. And the interface is a pale imitation of TiVo’s beautiful GUI. And, today, I’ve noticed that the controls are sluggish to the point of near-uselessness. What good is it to skip commercials if you overshoot by a minute each time and need to painfully back-track? Worse, even when it’s working right, the FIOS DVR does a lousy job of showing where exactly you are in the playback of a recorded show that is currently being recorded live. For instance, I watch Good Morning America most mornings. During the week, it’s two hours long. I often pause it and leave partway through to practice guitar and get my kids off to school. But when I’m ready to come back, I typically find that the show has inexplicably un-paused itself. With TiVo, knowing that I’d left at 7:45 would be enough to almost immediately return to the point where I left. With the FIOS box, I’m forced to painfully rewind or fast-forward which, even at top-speed, takes several annoying minutes.

But TiVo is screwed, and there isn’t a whole lot they can do about it. The problem is a combination of cost and convenience. Both of those factors favor the cable or FIOS DVR over the TiVo. The cable company’s DVR is built into a set-top box that you need to control your digital cable anyway. There’s no up-front cost to get it, only a monthly fee that’s similar to what you have to pay for TiVo – they’re both around $10-15 a month. So if cost and convenience favor the cable company’s DVR, somebody would have to be awfully motivated to go out and spend an additional $200 or more (possibly much more) to get a TiVo. In fact, the person would have to be made aware, somehow, that TiVo both exists and that it’s far superior to the DVR they’ve been issued by their cable-company. That’s known as fighting an uphill battle on TiVo’s part. And uphill battles, as we know from our military history, are costly. You can win for a while, but attrition will eventually leave your forces too weak to continue the fight.

There are options – both for me and for TiVo – but they’re not pretty. I could buy a different TiVo, at a cost of probably $500 or more for the unit, plus the cost of the subscription (which would be either $13 per month, or $400 for a one-time lifetime subscription). BUT, assuming I could make it work properly, I’d also need to rent a “cablecard” from FIOS for, I think, each tuner in my TiVo. The cablecard is sort of like the guts of the FIOS converter box crunched down into a little compact card that you install inside your TiVo so it can talk directly to the FIOS digital service and make channel-change requests all by itself. Assuming it worked (which I’d need to verify through some research), it would essentially solve all of my problems, but at a significant cost. On top of the TiVo fees, I’d need to rent each cablecard from FIOS for around $4 per month – for a total monthly cost of as much as $17. I’d also be making a gamble that TiVo will stay in business long enough for that unit to wear out and/or pay for itself, because without TiVo Headquarters, all of the “online” functions of a TiVo box are worthless.

TiVo’s options aren’t much better. What they really need is an alliance with Comcast, Time-Warner or Verizon in which they put their far-superior boxes onto the service-provider’s customer’s TVs in place of the crappy DVRs they’re using now. Sadly, there’s no immediate indication that that’s going to happen. They have managed to incorporate some movie-delivery technology into their boxes by partnering with Blockbuster and Netflix, but, let’s face it, both of those companies are in danger as well. Again, the service of digitally delivering movies to the customer’s TV on-demand can be done just as effectively, perhaps moreso, by the cable company.

Or, they need to convince a whole host of new customers that they’re offering something much better than what’s available elsewhere. And this host needs to be not just big, but much bigger than the number of subscribers that are leaving each month because they either like the cost/convenience advantage of the cable box or they’ve grown frustrated that their existing TiVo unit isn’t fully-functional once they’ve upgraded to digital television. Sadly, I may find myself among their number, and it’s a real loss for anyone like me who wants to easily and conveniently control what, when and how they watch television.

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