Ten years of TiVo: how far we haven't come

We'll be totally honest here: we love TiVo. TiVo DVRs of every vintage are scattered throughout the Engadget editorial ranks, and Series3 units are our preferred hardware for HD Netflix streaming and Amazon's nascent HD Video on Demand service. And, well, using a TiVo is just fun in a way that no other DVR ever is -- those booping noises still provoke smiles all around.

But here's the thing: it's been ten years since TiVo first introduced the Philips-built HDR110 at NAB, and while the company's name has since become synonymous with time-shifted digital video recording, it's not because its products have achieved runaway success. In fact, it's the exact opposite: most consumers choose to get by with awful cable- or satellite-company DVRs, and TiVo's only just barely pulled a full year of profitability, two factors that have kept it firmly on deathwatch since 2005. Not only that, but while TiVo might have pushed the DVR into the mainstream, it hasn't meaningfully innovated since -- apart from HD output and the aforementioned streaming services, you'd be hard-pressed to tell a brand-new TiVo HD from an original unit by using it for five minutes. Worse, the entire DVR category's essentially remained stagnant as well -- one study found that the average DVR-enabled family records just 15-20 percent of the TV they watch, a startlingly low number by any measure.

So look -- it's not working, guys. We're happy that Comcast is now offering the TiVo interface in certain markets as a paid option, and we'll be pleased as punch when those long-promised new DirecTiVo units ship out, but the simple fact of the matter is TiVo can't continue to rely on the same strategies and ideas that haven't worked for the past ten years. What TiVo needs is a new plan -- and we've got five simple ideas that might help kickstart the company and the DVR market for the next ten years. Read on for more.

1. Embrace the computer within

Sure, the DVR is supposed to be an "appliance." And there's nothing wrong with letting things operate that way in general. But in reality you're shipping a custom Linux rig with dedicated HD video hardware, Ethernet, and external storage support -- the possibilities are endless. It's great that you've built a YouTube implementation, but a basic browser with Flash video support should have been part of the stock install for years now. The DVR that can also play Hulu without any hassles -- instant hit product. Local network streaming? It's great that it's partially supported, but half-assed codec support doesn't cut it anymore. Make your box play everything, no questions asked. People with TiVos shouldn't be tempted by a media streamer ever again.

The same goes for getting video out and onto portable devices -- you're being totally shown up by open-source projects like iTiVo and pyTiVo. TiVo Desktop Plus shouldn't be an afterthought your customers have to pay extra for -- it should be the defining feature of your product. Record a show, have it on your phone the next morning to watch on the train -- no cable company can compete with that. Mix in a little Slingbox-like placeshifting and gadget nerds will be beating down your door with $12.95 monthly subscription fees.

Can't do it, the networks and cable companies won't let us? Stop crying and point them in the direction of any decent Media Center PC, which can do all of this and more, and even do it with your interface. No excuses.

2. Put a little QWERTY in the peanut

The peanut remote is arguably one of the most iconic pieces of home theater gear ever designed. It feels great in the hand, it's intuitive, and it's powerful. It's also incredibly obsolete. What are all those number buttons for? Why is there still a switch to select between two DVRs? Why can't it control other A/V gear as well as a $25 universal can? Why is 30-second skip still a hidden command? Most importantly, why is using it to enter in search terms such a terrible pain in the ass?

If you're going to be serious about video on demand and your new search interface, you've got to make text input way easier. This isn't rocket science -- just take a cue from the smartphone market and build a slider QWERTY peanut with a friendly, stripped-down top layout. Not only will you have once again set a standard in remote design for a decade, you'll have made YouTube on TiVo something other than a painful way to torture party guests with bloopy sounds.

3. Update the interface

Speaking of the interface, it's time to rethink things. A lot's happened in the ten years since we first saw the TiVo interface, and it hasn't kept up. That new search interface is a start, but it's time to let go of the SD customer and start seriously designing for the 16:9 HD display. You've got a lot more room to work with now, so give us the data we crave, like storage meters, PIP, and network-enabled information overlays. Hell, go crazy and toss in a third-party widget API, like Yahoo's doing. Fix the simple stuff, too: there shouldn't be any jaggies. Reordering the Season Pass priority list should happen seamlessly in the background instead of locking the user out for an indeterminate period of time. Switching between the "native" TiVo interface and things like Netflix and HMO apps shouldn't be so jarring and involve obvious resolution changes.

Just being slightly better than the cable company's garbage won't cut it for much longer -- again, the Media Center PC kicks your ass right now, and the high-end customer on which you're currently relying is going to figure that out soon.

4. Ship the Series4 with tru2way support as fast as you can

Yes, we're telling you to add in a lot of features, but time is of the essence, and the next generation of TiVo hardware with tru2way support needs to hit shelves soon. The single biggest reason people don't switch to TiVo is the lack of cable company on demand and pay-per-view content, and tru2way will put an end to it. Sure, the interface might be out of your hands and largely sucky, but hey, it'll still be there. Panasonic already has tru2way hardware on the market and the system is live in a few cities with major rollouts planned for July 1 -- so what's the holdup here?

Oh -- and just call it the Series4, okay? Trust us.

5. Cajole, convince and inform your audience with advertising

Everyone -- everyone! -- says they're going to "TiVo" a show. But they don't actually know what a TiVo is, and you're not telling them. We sort of get why you wouldn't spend a ton on advertising right now -- the economy's in a hole and your offering isn't necessarily $300 and $12.95 a month better than the cable company -- but you need to invest heavily in explaining to people why your next product is going to change the way they consume media. Show them the difference between a DVR that works almost perfectly and the crap they're stuck with now. Hold their hand during the inevitably bad CableCARD installation. Offer lifetime service plans again. In short, give your customers a reason to buy into your brand and correct people who say they have "a TiVo" when they mean a generic DVR. It won't be easy, but it's doable -- you just need a product that deserves the effort.


Look -- none of these ideas are guaranteed to work. Maybe the surest path to profitability is indeed selling software to cable and satellite companies. Maybe Microsoft will eat the entire DVR market for lunch with a combination of Media Center, Windows Home Server and the Xbox 360. It's damn well going to try. But we'd bet the vast majority of consumers will still be puttering along recording just 15-20 percent of their media on crap DVRs until they have a compelling reason to switch to something better. That's a huge opportunity waiting to be seized, but it's not going to sit there forever -- the TiVo brand might give you an advantage to start, but unless you make some serious moves, next-gen devices like the EchoStar SlingLoaded T2200S are going to snatch it out from under you. The next ten years starts now -- we'll be watching.