TiVo Or Not TiVo?

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With the possible exception of the electric nose- and ear-hair clippers, there is no device in my gadget-heavy house more consistently and surprisingly good at its job than the TiVo box. As you really should know by now, TiVo is the personal video recorder (PVR) that learns the kind of shows you like, saves them on its internal hard drive, zips through commercials and pauses live TV.

Not only that, but it is constantly updating itself through the phone line with one call every night while you sleep. I wake up in the morning and the operating system has rid itself of bugs. I wish my PCs would do that.

In many ways, TiVo is kind of an uber computer. It's supremely high-tech, built on the ultra-stable Linux operating system, the genius of which is you never notice it's there. The box is doing things the Internet revolution has so far failed to manage, like distributing independent movie shorts submitted to websites on a screen larger than a postage stamp (after signing a deal last week with Atom Films whereby TiVo customers will get Atom's stuff for free).

Two weeks ago, San Jose-based TiVo Inc. won the patent for Personal Video Recording. Wall Street approved and the stock shot up 72% in a day. That might have been because TiVo could now theoretically ask Microsoft, owners of Ultimate TV, and Philips, owners of Replay TV, to take out licenses. Or it may just be because the system was formally described in the patent as "multimedia timewarping." C'mon, how cool is that?

Unabashed TiVo evangelism aside, it is a source of constant surprise to me that the company is not actually doing as well as the press releases suggest. Less than 400,000 units have been sold over the last four years. It's a nice figure, but nowhere near the amount projected or the amount needed to crack the 21 million-unit cable-box market, which is prime TiVo territory.

Especially not when Replay TV, based up the road in Mountain View, just signed a deal with Motorola to install its PVR in up to five million cable boxes. Talk about leapfrogging. TiVo is feeling the heat: it just laid off 23% of its staff and said it would not be seeking extra funding this year.

If the technology's so good, what seems to be the problem? The economy, of course, is always a factor. When consumers are feeling only moderately confident and start saving, big ticket electronics items go out the window. It might also come down to the monthly fee of $9.95, which is a ludicrous imposition in an medium where we're not used to regular payments (whoever heard of bribing a machine to record TV for you?), and if TiVo is listening to its customers the fee will be first to go.

But the biggest problem is marketing — or as the TiVo folks put it, "education." It seems those of us who have spent the last 20 years figuring out how to program the VCR clock are terrified by the idea of switching to a PVR and all the extra technological challenges that sounds like it might entail. In truth, nothing could be easier than navigating TiVo's menus. All you really need to know how to use are the buttons market up, down, left, right and select. But computers have gotten such a bad rap with the technophobic, as slowing PC sales suggest, that a computer even in the guise of an easy-to-use consumer electronics product just will not fly off the Circuit City shelves.

What the TiVoistas are secretly hoping is that Microsoft's recent entry into their turf will indirectly aid them. Redmond has the deep pockets to spend on ads that explain how a PVR works — ones much more direct and widely broadcast than TiVo's too-clever-by-half "male itch" ads. But Ultimate TV is still in its buggy and relatively featureless infancy; as with all Microsoft products, it's best to wait for version 2.0. So if the ads feed a need but discerning consumers try out both systems when they actually get to the store, TiVo wins. Right?

Then again, that's probably what Sony thought when it was pushing Beta Max vs. VHS. The evolution of technology is Darwinistic, but unfortunately survival of the fittest often means survival of the wealthiest. Memo to TiVo: Time to seriously consider wielding that patent power. Let's do the Multimedia Timewarp again.