When I got my TiVo Series 2 in 2004, it meant that I was finally able to watch Arrested Development without skipping class. This was a new world. It should have been the start of something big. Video, like a book, could suddenly be put down or picked up at will. My TiVo became a virtual library in the same sense of my book library: it held the content that shaped me.
Unfortunately, this was not the start of something big. The FCC tried to foster competition with CableCARDs, but their supportive regulation was lame at best. It was easier to steal food from a rottweiler than to get your MSO to send you a CableCARD. Add in a deluge of lawsuits related to commercial skipping and rebroadcast rights (apparently we hadn’t laid this bugaboo to rest with the VCR/Betamax suits of the 1980s), and instead of innovation in the DVR market, we got stagnation and frustration.
Here’s the craziest part: the UI on my Series 2 TiVo (circa 2003/4) is still faster, easier to use and more beautiful than any DVR UI I’ve used since (including Optimum Online, Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner). Based in Linux, it featured transparent overlays (so I could browse programs and watch TV at the same time), simple season pass setup and an alphabetical listing of my record programs. I just named three features that most DVRs today still lack. Go ahead and ask any TiVo user how they compare TiVo’s interface to Comcast, Time Warner, Optimum Online or DirecTV. I don’t care if they haven’t used a TiVo in five years, they’ll still laugh at the question, because quite frankly, there is no comparison. TiVo was better than these current products seven years ago. The MSOs should be ashamed. So should regulators, but that’s a matter for another post.
Luckily, the tide in television content delivery is finally turning back toward innovation. After years without commercial progress (MythTV, XBMC and other open-source alternatives did continue to flourish thanks to a dedicated and vibrant community of developers), a few startups have begun rolling out worthy successors to TiVo’s promise. Boxee, with its beta release, was the first to take a leap forward. Indeed, the first time I used Boxee Beta was the closest I’ve come to recapturing the feeling I had the first time I used TiVo. The feeling that, yes, of course this is how TV is supposed to work. How many products have given you that feeling of wonder? I can’t think of many.
It’s no exaggeration to say that TiVo turned me from a reader to a viewer. There’s only so much time in the day, and if I have to spend most of my time in a channel ignoring or filtering the content it delivers, I’m ejecting. TiVo made broadcast TV personal to me in the same way novels were. Boxee Beta did the same with internet video. It looks like TiVo wants to deliver the same experience again. I don’t know if it will win the space, but I can’t wait to watch the competition. I’ve been waiting since 2004.