Tivo — Dying young, but leaving a great-looking corpse

December 8, 2004

If there’s a tougher user interface to get right than an interface for an intelligent TV device, I don’t wanna meet it.  I was involved with a project trying to do content management on TVs back in ‘97, and the problems involved in coming up with something powerful that looks good and is as easy to use 10 feet from the TV as the TV itself are immense.  The project died (several times—there must have been a shortage of wooden stakes) for other reasons, but we never came up with anything half as good as the Tivo interface has been since day one.

Matt Haughey has a great interview with Tivo’s Margret Schmidt, the person responsible for making their interface happen.  If you’ve ever thought great interfaces “just happen”, you really need to read this to appreciate how much work and thought goes into making an experience that is truely intuitive and easy to use.

Unfortunately, as much as I love the interface, it’s slowly ceasing to be enough.  I’ve not been happy with their closed system for quite some time (sure you can hack a Tivo to add functionality and capacity, but it’s a pain in the butt, and you’re risking a nasty tail-chase should they decide to shut you out.)

I’m even less happy about recent indications that they’re liable to use their ability to update the systems remotely to appease content owners and advertisers.  Of course, that’s a sign of the times, and I understand that doing so is probably a matter of survival for them, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant. 

Unless they can come up with a solution that allows them to do HDTV on cable and satellite competitively with the crappier systems that the providers are offering cheaply, I’m afraid that their days are numbered anyway.  Ubiquity and low price points have cost many superior products the market, and the Tivo is likely to end up as just another dead body along the road to technological mediocrity.

If that’s the case, as their position weakens, I’m afraid that we’ll see things like transitional fair use catered to.  Worse, since Tivo can remotely update systems that are already deployed, these kind of “features” might just turn up one day on the systems we are using now.

When and if that starts happening, it will be a sad day indeed—when “upgrades” start to take away your ability to use a device the way you want to use it, it’s time to start looking elsewhere.

I still love my Tivo, but I think it’s about time to move on…

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2 Responses to “Tivo — Dying young, but leaving a great-looking corpse”

  1. Charlie Lindahl on December 11th, 2004 9:13 am

    What are you going to migrate *to*?

    Big thing about the TiVo for me is the “Wish Lists”. I can replicate everything else on SageTV or others.

  2. Chuck Lawson on December 11th, 2004 12:34 pm

    Hiya Charlie!

    Actually, it’s funny you should ask that—I’ve been tinkering with some other stuff that I planned to post about, but I’ve gotten caught up in a bit of a project and haven’t had time to get finished; possibly in the next couple of days.

    I’ve never used the Tivo wishlists much, so that’s probably not going to be a big thing for me. The interface itself is a much bigger deal, as far as I’m concerned.

    As much as it pains me to say it, probably the only interface I’ve seen that is a close second to Tivo’s is MCE 2005.  This is painful because not only do I not want to buy a pre-configured (that’s techie for “full of useless crap”) machine, but if I don’t trust Tivo to not knuckle under to the DRM contingent, I damn sure don’t trust Microsoft. There are OEM copies of MCE 2005 that makes the first item not-so-bad, but there’s no curing the second one.

    The good news is that MCE is spawning some pretty decent knock-offs.  The Open Source Media Portal project is interesting, but it has a lot of maturing to do before I’d trust it to my PVR needs.

    However, being open source, the Media Portal MCE-alike interface is kind of making the rounds.

    I like Sage a lot from a reliability and feature standpoint, and 2.1 has improved that considerably still.  The remaining thing I didn’t like was the interface, but it’s seriously open and skinable.

    Putting two and two together, some folks over on the Sage forum have been playing with a Media Portal derived skin that is just dynamite as far as I’m concerned, even though it is still in Alpha. It still needs some work on its interface to remotes, but that’s coming along.

    Someone has also built a Sage client for the Haupauge MVP, opening the door to ~$100 set-top boxes using the Media Portal interface talking to a Sage box on the network.

    I’ve got some hardware sitting here to upgrade my Sage box a little (it’s a bit slow with network clients on it). As soon as I’ve had a chance to play with that a bit, I’ll doubtless have some more to report…

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