I bought a TiVo within months of its initial release, way back in 1999, at a time when few people understood the technology and couldn’t imagine how it was really any different than a VCR. I was instantly hooked, and became a TiVo evangelist because the system and software were truly amazing. Who wouldn’t want to fast-forward through commercials? Who wouldn’t be charmed by the arcade game style sound effects that instantly confirmed you were fast-forwarding at speed level 1, then 2, then 3? Who wouldn’t want to record an entire series with a couple clicks of a button, and to be able to record more than one show at the same time? Most of us take these things entirely for granted now, but back in the day, TiVo was the company that brought us this magic. They were a first-mover and had a golden opportunity to create a powerhouse of a company.
I could imagine a bright future for On Demand TV, and couldn’t wait for the day when digital video would revolutionize the way we consumed video. I dreamed of a library of content that would just be waiting for me when I wanted it – shows I skipped, then later wished I’d seen, movies without the hassle of renting and returning. I bought each of my parents their first TiVo unit, knowing they wouldn’t “get it” until they experienced it, and convinced countless friends TiVo was the future of TV-watching. I was the perfect TiVo customer.
When I first used the service, I had a cable TV connection, and used a standalone unit. Life was wonderful. Eventually, though, I forked up the cash for an HD TV, and signed up for HD service from DirecTV. TiVo didn’t make an HD unit so I was forced to switch to a DirecTV HD DVR if I wanted to record anything in HD. It was a painful moment for me. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that it’s been a painful number of years for me. DirecTV and TiVo tragically broke up in 2005, and though rumors of their making up have been in the press since 2008, it took them until the end of last year to make their reunion happen. Some industry watchers believe it will be too little, too late, for TiVo.
Why? When the original DirecTV and TiVo partnership was at its peak, 80% of TiVo’s subscribers came through that partnership. When DirecTV dropped them, they started losing subscribers hand over fist, from a peak of 4.4 million, to just under 2 million today. It seems TiVo just hasn’t been able to arrive at the right business model, and that is unfortunate for consumers, because what they always did get right was the software. TiVo’s user interface was adored by its users, and it’s what created devoted customers like me. The software was easy to use, nice to look at (and listen to), and it was highly responsive. Despite the evolution of DVR software, I still feel like my DirecTV HD DVR is slow – slow to recognize my clicks, slow to load the program guide, slow to load the menu, slow to return search results. Even for someone that is knowledgeable about the amount of processing that is going on behind the scenes, I still expect performance to be much better than it is, and my problems with the software aren’t simply performance related.
My DirecTV box was recently updated with a new version of the DVR software it runs. It’s a bit flashier, redesigned to feature more images in the presentation, but there are basic things DirecTV just plain gets wrong. For instance, when I launch the menu, I have to drop down two items in the menu list, then click over once to get to my playlist. Anyone that uses a DVR knows that 95% of the time, the playlist is what you want to get to – immediately. The fact that DirecTV forces me to navigate other menu items every single time, perhaps on the off chance that I’ll choose some fee-based On Demand movie because the film art catches my eye, is just plain annoying.
I hope that TiVo’s renewed partnership with DirecTV will save them, but I do think they need to continue to look for a better business model. If they could just get their software in the hands of more consumers, they’d build a fanatical following again, but that won’t happen if they don’t find a way to distribute their software regardless of the TV service a consumer uses. Unfortunately, as average consumers, our hands are tied to the degree that we can only use hardware and software that is sanctioned and supported by our service provider, and we are generally going to choose one service over another based on something other than the software installed on the DVR boxes we use.
That said, as an also loyal DirecTV customer, at least I am now in the position to consider TiVo again, albeit at a higher price point than my current setup, and with fewer features than the latest top-of-the-line DirecTV branded DVR that’s now available. I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to go with the new TiVo or the new DirecTV Home Media Center, but if I do bite on the new TiVo, you’ll be sure to hear more from me on the subject.
Resources consulted in the writing of this article: