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Switched On: Apple DVR could find its calling in iPhone


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

A recently unearthed patent filing shows Apple is thinking beyond its current living room video vending machine, the Apple TV. Among a number of new features, the design specifies how DVR information could be sent to a portable remote control similar to Apple's existing iPod and iPhone, taking integration among its products to a new level.

And it's not just working together for the sake of some superficial "better together" marketing angle. How many times have you heard friends discussing some great new show that you missed? With the capabilities Apple illustrates, one could perhaps call up the TV listings right from their iPhone and schedule to record the next episode. What's unknown is how Apple would transfer recorded DVR shows to an iPod or iPhone -- would recordings by synced through iTunes? And, if so, would they be tied to an authorized account to discourage internet redistribution?

In fact, while the addition of DVR features might raise questions about Apple retreating from selling TV shows, it would really reflect the reality of these show purchases being opportunistic (as well as perhaps serving as a tactic to bring NBC back to the bargaining table). Besides, DVR integration with the iTunes store could lead to more revenue opportunities. In the aforementioned scenario, the DVR could offer the opportunity to buy the episodes missed so far.

While patents don't necessarily portend market entry, would TiVo be able to withstand a market entry from Apple better than the Rio or Treo did? The DVR pioneer has stepped up its service offerings significantly over the past few years; few broadband-delivered TV entertainment services have escaped its partnership purview. These have included internet information and casual games, TV shows and movies on demand, subscription music services, video podcasts and more. No US TV platform offers a more versatile array of services, but the jack-of-all-trades approach still hasn't brought sustained profitability or enough pull from TiVo's simpler and cheaper cable competition.

Apple would be well-positioned to supersede even TiVo's functionality if it offered an SDK for Apple TV (or a DVR-enabled successor) as it has for the iPhone. In addition, Apple could gain a significant marketing advantage versus TiVo – and indeed the cable companies -- if it stuck to its subscription-averse philosophy, or perhaps rolled the subscription fee into .Mac. The latter could provide online TV listings for remote scheduling similar to the way MSN offers the feature for Windows Media Center.

Apple could clearly bring a lot to the DVR. The question is, what could the DVR bring to Apple that would motivate it to play in this extremely competitive market? (This is not a new question to Switched On readers.) However, an opportunity to bolster its offerings in portable electronics markets that it leads (iPod) or where its share is growing (iPhone) might persuade Apple to see the living room as a more strategic support environment for its iCosystem and less of a cash cow.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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