When TiVo first made a debut in 1999, it revolutionized the way we watch TV. It was a time when VHS was the only practical method of recording televised programs. Unfortunately, the company spent the last four years embroiled in lawsuits with EchoStar (Dish Network) over patent infringements. TiVo may have finally won the big ruling last week and its stock value rose nearly 30 percent, but I still do not see a future in sight. Even the latest TiVo Premiere XL only brings gradual improvements and is nearly identical to the original models with little to no innovation.
TiVo missed the train heading into the digital age where services such as Hulu and Netflix are replacing traditional service providers especially in the households of college students. The latest generation of set-top boxes including Apple TV, Boxee, Google TV, and Roku are stealing the spotlight. Even gaming consoles such as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are potential replacements. Although the company is trying to make up for lost time, here are just a few things that could put TiVo back on the map.
A New Remote Control
The unique peanut-shaped remote control became iconic nearly twelve years ago since it was comfortable to hold, and had an intuitive layout. Sadly, not much has changed since then. Although TiVo makes an optional accessory with a slide-out keyboard available, it is not nearly enough.
For instance, take a look at Kinect. Microsoft’s technology brings motion gestures and voice-activated controls to the Xbox 360. Users can forward or rewind through a movie with just a wave of a hand or say “Xbox Pause” or “Xbox Play” to control playback without having to pick up a controller.
Apple TV lets users browse their full library and control playback from an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. Google TV lets Android users send links to web pages or videos to the big screen with just a click, not to mention support for voice-powered search and text input. Even the Boxee Box ships with a compact remote with simple navigational controls on one side and a QWERTY keyboard on the other.
App Store + Web Browser
Google executives demoed a TV-optimized Android Marketplace at their I/O 2010 conference, but the feature is no where in sight almost a year later. The platform could have potentially let companies build thousands of creative apps. TiVo should take a hint and provide a robust set of APIs to let developers build on their platform. Creating an App Store with free, paid, and subscription-based payment structures could draw in many neat services.
Including a robust HTML5 web browser with support for web apps could also help make a better case for TiVo. For those who do not remember, TiVo Community sprung up with thousands of enthusiasts looking to customize, hack and upgrade their boxes. It was once an exciting time to own a DVR and it can happen again. TiVo just needs to create the proper eco-system.
A New Interface
When TiVo first made an appearance, the user interface was popular due to ease-of-use and a fancy design. The latest model even does away with the iconic “Now Playing” section. Although the company now offers a HD version and a little more gloss, it just feels more cluttered. It feels as though TiVo keeps stacking new features on top of old ones. The software has lost intuitiveness and feels bloated.
TiVo introduced Amazon Instant Video and Netflix in 2008. BlockBuster On Demand also appeared the following year. Support for Hulu Plus, which is relatively new, is still in the works. Access to these services is a great addition, but the implementation is quite outdated. The interface elements are not consistent and it often feels as though you are leaving TiVo entirely when using certain services.
For a new version of TiVo to catch up, it would need to take things such as apps, on-demand content, social networks, and web browsing into account for a better implemented user experience. Microsoft’s Windows Media Center (Windows 7 edition) or even the latest Xbox 360 Dashboard are great examples of how things should look. Even the Apple TV and the Boxee Box offer simple and compelling modern interfaces. It is time for TiVo to re-think everything from the ground up.
Social Networking Integration
TiVo notes that it includes access to social networks through FrameChannel, but the integration is far from great. The company should focus on deeper integration with popular services such as Facebook and Twitter. For instance, I would like to see what my friends are watching on TV at any given time so I do not have to scan through hundreds of channels each time I sit down. When you are looking to record new programs, TiVo should recommend suggestions based on the viewing habits of friends.
It would also be neat if you could post status messages and share what you are watching with friends when you hit the “thumbs up” button to rate a show. These ideas just skim the surface and there is plenty of room for innovation. I just think that seeing the text “5+ of your friends are watching this” would definitely drive me to check out a new show.
Head To The Cloud
When you realize that TiVo still needs an external WiFi adapter to get online, you know that the company is far behind the times. One innovative feature with plenty of potential could be a “digital locker” for uploading recorded content to the cloud. Amazon recently introduced the Cloud Player for storing music online and imagine if TiVo did the same for video. It would be amazing if subscribers can access saved TV programs from any computer with a web browser. In addition, the company could make it possible to even stream live TV across the web, much like a SlingBox.
Paired with cloud-based services, TiVo could also bring television and other forms of entertainment to mobile devices. The company already offers an iPad app, however this only lets users browse, schedule recordings, and control their TV. It would be neat if there was support for place-shifting content from your DVR to your tablet or smart phone whether at home or on the road. It is just a nuisance that owners still need to download, convert, and copy files over to portable devices.
There are also a handful of unique features that could put TiVo into the forefront. For instance, OnLive will soon come embedded into HDTVs. It is a streaming gaming service that only requires a high-speed network connection. Users can enjoy the latest titles without having to deal with physical media, downloads, or installations. Just pickup your controller and you can enjoy a game just as quickly as you could load a YouTube video.
TiVo should also offer DLNA integration and dump the proprietary home media sharing technology currently in use. This standard ships with every Windows 7 machine, many new smart phones, the latest tablets, in the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360, and thousands of other devices. A better podcast library for audio and video content would be nice too. TiVo should make plugging in a flash drive or SD memory card for access to multimedia on physical media a possibility, much like the Boxee Box.
The Google TV offers a proprietary Logitech Vid chatting service which is annoying to use. Skype offers video calling support on HDTVs, but only a handful of models are available not to mention expensive. A USB webcam paired with a TiVo and an established service could bring video chat to the masses.
The Bottom Line
I was a huge fan of TiVo, but my dependence on the service has lost almost all value. Although it might still be one of the best traditional DVRs out there, many consumers are heading to the web for all their entertainment. It is still tough to find certain types of programming such as live TV or sports, but prime time shows are easily available online. College students are especially pioneering the change by entirely looking past old fashion antenna, cable, and satellite providers for their daily dose of TV.
This trend will only continue and I think it is already getting late for TiVo to reinvent itself. I just hope that the company stops wasting brain power on suing those who offer similar technologies and starts spending more time on creating innovative products.
Full Disclosure: I was a high school intern at TiVo for four months in 2006. I have no stake in this company or with any competitors for that matter.