Why Apple won’t build a digital video recorder | iLounge Backstage


Why Apple won’t build a digital video recorder

I love my TiVo box. I love it so much that the TiVo mascot—that happy little critter with antennas and no arms—got a restraining order against me. It was something involving the Season Pass Manager and some questionable comments on my part. But anyway, I would trade my TiVo in without hesitation for an Apple digital video recorder. As great as TiVo’s interface is, I could only imagine what uncle Steve could think up.

So, as I was relaying the live updates from Apple’s media event on Tuesday, I kept getting more and more excited every time iLounge EIC Jeremy Horwitz would IM me with details on the new Mac minis. Intel chip. Nice. Slick Front Row media software. Sweet. Six-button Apple remote. Cool. Native HD support. Yes. Shared music, photos and videos. Awesome.

As I waited for Jeremy to quote Steve as saying something like “oh yeah, and it can record TV too,” the prices for the Intel Mac mini configurations were given and then the IMs quickly began relating to home stereos. Foiled again. There would be no TiVo-like features this time, even though Apple is marketing the new Mac mini more as a living room device than a desktop computer. Sure, you could get an EyeTV, but who wants to spend more money and still not have an Apple interface?

Apple claims that adding the video recording functionality would have made the Mac mini too complicated. “We’re not trying to replace the TiVo,” says Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller. “This is about taking the media from your computer and accessing it via the TV.” But Phil, that’s what Apple does best—they take something complicated and turn it into something easy to use. Quit covering.

Shortly after the event, I had several people say to me that they were really disappointed that the new Mac minis didn’t have any built-in way to record television shows and movies. I was really, really disappointed too, but have come to realize that it just isn’t going to happen. At least not as long as Apple is selling TV shows on iTunes and buddying up with TV networks and movie studios.

It’s simple really—why would Apple provide you with the capabilities to easily record all the John Locke goodness of “Lost” or the latest Dunder-Mifflin mishaps of “The Office” when the company can get a cut of a $1.99 per show? There’s also the theory of evilly locking customers into the FairPlay DRM so they won’t ever buy anything besides an Apple media device to play their purchased content on… but Apple needs to sell you the shows for this to work. Unfortunately, these are of lesser quality than what you could record yourself.

If Apple had added a TV tuner to the new Intel Mac minis along with a slick interface and a big hard drive for storing all your favorite shows, they would have also been forced to allow users to transfer their recorded shows to their iPods. Free video content for iPods. Sounds good. But Apple wants to continue building its customer base for paid video downloads and make a little money at the same time. There’s also the little thing of completely angering every TV network and movie studio—something Steve doesn’t want to do if he wants to keep selling their content.

Simply put, I wouldn’t expect to see a Mac with built-in DVR features any time soon. Like or not, Apple is way too far into the business of selling video content dipped in their own DRM. It’s just not in their best interest to allow us to record whatever we want for free. Don’t get me wrong, the iTunes store is amazing. There’s a convenience factor there that can’t be matched. And the store also helps sell iPods and Macs. I just wish we could have both options—buying from Apple and recording what we wanted. I know I’d be doing both.

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You nailed it right on the head.  Apple will not add DVR capability to any Mac because it wouldn’t be a sound business decision.  Apple, just like every other corporation in the world, is in business for one reason…to make money for themselves and their stockholders.

Posted by Reality Check on March 2, 2006 at 8:35 PM (CST)


Why would I buy a TV show if I could just record it with my MMPVR.

Posted by Brandon M on March 2, 2006 at 9:14 PM (CST)


Very good article. I didn’t even think about that, but how true is it!

Posted by Jonathan Keim on March 2, 2006 at 9:50 PM (CST)


This has been my belief all along. You will never see a DVR coming out of Apple…unless they can figure out a way to make you pay before you watch. Mark my words, this pay-for-play model will spread. Networks are going to flag their shows so they cannot be recorded with modern DVRs. HBO has already petitioned the FCC to do this. My guess is that there is going to be a big market for older DVRs and PCs with Sony’s Gigapocket that cannot read the flag.

Posted by Mark Little on March 2, 2006 at 11:16 PM (CST)


Good points above.

There’s one thing that I haven’t seen anyone mention though: People don’t really want a DVR or TiVo.

Wait, drop the rope! Hear me out!

Let’s say you have a single television with a TiVo hooked up, and you want to watch Lost. Ok, it records it. But you want to watch Veronica Mars too. That’s on at the same time. Oops. That won’t work.

Of course, many people have multiple television/tuner setups, but that works around the inherent problem. What happens if the power goes out? Or there’s some unforeseen conflict in timers, like when a show runs a few minutes over?

People don’t want DVRs. They want to watch television shows on their command. They don’t want to have to watch at a specific time and place. They want flexibility. DVRs are just the easiest way to put in that flexibility into the cable/satellitte systems that are already in place.

Getting shows through the more and more badly named iTunes Music Store is much simpler than setting up timers. It solves the problem of giving you the content you want, when you want it. Rather than worry if you may have a timer conflict, you get a download when you want.

The people who ignore this and continue chanting for a DVR from Apple should instead try to figure out what’s wrong with getting their shows from the iTMS. Here’s what I got so far:

1) The quality isn’t as good as you can record. This will probably be solved over time, as Apple figures out how to get the bandwidth affordable to send better quality.

2) You can’t get all the shows on the iTMS that you can using a TiVo. Again, as time goes by expect Apple to have more and more choices.

3) You can’t watch “live” television with TiVo pause/rewind capabilities. For the most part this isn’t a concern, especially if Apple can start putting up shows at the same time or earlier than broadcast. There’s special events, mostly sports like the Super Bowl or an awards show, which I don’t really see a solution too, unless Apple starts broadcasting live content over Quicktime / Front Row with similar TiVo like pause /rewind functionality. But let’s assume this will be a problem for some people for some time.

4) Cost. This is the big one. Assume that Apple solves all the other problems, and has all the shows you would ever record from TiVo at the best quality. Great. But for many people, you start adding up all the shows you watch at $1.99 each, and you quickly get a bill above and beyond the cable/satellite bills people pay now, so even if they drop their paid for connection in favor of getting everything through iTMS, there will be a premium price for the privilege.

Unless Apple starts to offer a subscription service. What if, for something like $19.99 to $29.99 a month, you can download any television show from the iTMS, and you can watch it for as long as your monthly subscription is paid, much like some people are doing with music right now?

And let’s say you can tell the iTMS to automatically download a specific show during the course of the season, treating Lost or Veronica Mars like a podcast, that’s just ready for you when you want it?

Posted by Dylan on March 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM (CST)


The only real problem I see with iTMS (apart from the high cumulative cost of buying each episode of all your favorite shows every month) is that unless you have either really bad or exceptionally common tastes, not everything you would want to record will ever be available on ANY online store.

For example (obviously my own personal tastes here): While I’m a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica and Lost, Desperate Housewives and The Office leave me cold. So far so good. But I also like some of the more serious anime stuff on Adult Swim. I don’t seriously expect iTMS to have that stuff for sale. Heck, it’s usually 5 or 6 six years old by the time it gets translated and dubbed into english for American audiences anyway. New to me would be seriously old news to the iTMS. And you have to record this stuff because it airs in the wee hours of the morning.

For my, I have to record to DVD with my DVR, rip the DVD on my G5, edit the recording in QuickTime, and re-encode for my iPod using Podner if I want a show “to go” on my iPod. An Apple elegant, end to end solution would be a real time saver and convenience for me.

But I have to agree, as long as Apple sells videos, we’ll never see a Mac DVR. Irritating but true.

Posted by Scott on March 3, 2006 at 2:07 AM (CST)


Hey look, iTunes allows us to rip our own CD’s without any DRM are they? Why not recording TV programs? Maybe they would add some security preventing us to distribute the files over the internet but even that seems unlikely, there isn’t something that prevents us to share our ripped music. (Not that I would like to)

Posted by Koen De Poorter on March 3, 2006 at 4:35 AM (CST)


You and Dylan have got the picture.  But I would add that those subscriptions could be priced in tiers as high as cable TV at $50/60 a month - since in the new age, it will basically replace it.  And for sure, shows would be subscribed to and delivered just like podcasts. PReviews and catalogs of shows to come will also be available, so you can subscribe ahead of time. Podcasts were clearly a stepping stone to this.

In time, Scott, everything that is worth airing will be worth putting on iTMS - it’s the long tail revenue stream.  The cost of putting it on iTMS is small, and the revenue stream could be significant.

Posted by mark on March 3, 2006 at 10:56 AM (CST)


Has anyone every considered if iTunes will eventually offer a free version w/ commercials (they can block fwd/rwd through commercials) along side the 1.99 comercial free version?

Posted by eceres on March 3, 2006 at 11:24 AM (CST)


What makes it cumbersome is the extra step of getting it onto an iPod. If you want to record your TV shows and watch them on your computer (bigger screen = mo’ betta), that’s not that hard. I wouldn’t say that “Apple is preventing us”, because you can do it. It’s just that they don’t give it to you out of the box. What will happen: some enterprising third-party company will whip up an all-in-one solution and make a killing. Why? It’s one place that Apple is certain *not* to go! Elgato, are you listening?

Posted by Poster on March 3, 2006 at 12:06 PM (CST)


I too was sadly disappointed with the lack of DVR in the new mini, but as everybody else mentioned I did not expect there to be one.

My interest is not to record mainstream programming et al, but to catch the news and programming on local public and cable access tv stations.

Will iTMS ever sell the broadcast schoolboard meeting? Howabout the newscast that showed my son at school?
What about the Al Franken as a guest on CNN?

I am thinking “no”.

Posted by consumer_q on March 3, 2006 at 2:04 PM (CST)


Apple is a hardware company seeking 30 per cent margins. iTunes with all current and future for sale content is intended to drive hardware sales. Margins on content have been characterized as nominal. I already pay for cable tv bandwidth. I want and am willing to pay for Apple’s integrated iHub DVR. I believe the dark siders will switch in numbers comparable to iPod adopters. Aren’t most of us displeased with cable operators increasing fees? Who do you prefer to support Apple or Comcast and the rest?

Posted by Benton on March 3, 2006 at 3:12 PM (CST)


Larry, good points, but they don’t explain fully why Apple will never sell a DVR.

Apple knows that the average Joe is more than happy to use a no-frills DVR bundled with his cable or satellite service. TiVo makes the world’s best DVR yet look at how it struggles. It has a smaller market share than Scientifica-Atlanta, which makes those no-frills DVRs.

Apple wants to dominate markets. It does not want another Macintosh (niche market). It wants more iPods (mass market).

With iTMS, Apple is well-situated to make an end-run around the cable and satellite companies. Remember all that fuss a few months back about letting consumers buy cable channels piecemeal? Well, forget about channels. Apple is slowly but surely enabling consumers to buy shows and episodes of shows. So yes, the DRM is annoying, but look at the upside—you get to program your own TV network.

Currently, the Mac Mini is too expensive and so is the iTMS content. As the market grows, prices should come down to the point where you can watch as much TV as you do now for much less money by buying the shows you want to see instead of paying for 100 cable networks, most of which you never use.

There is one reason why you might still cling to your cable box—the all news networks. But with any luck, those networks will someday broadcast over the Internet, especially during crises like 9-11.

PS: For the same reasons, Apple will never build a cell phone either.

Posted by Rockr on March 3, 2006 at 7:20 PM (CST)


Dylan and consumer_q, good points about sports and local programming respectively. I’m not sure how Apple solves that problem.

Posted by Rockr on March 3, 2006 at 7:26 PM (CST)


Another reason why we don’t want an Apple DVR - it would have to have DRM. Apple to get the cooperation of the studios and the networkls would have to add a DRM to everything we taped - just look at NBC threatening to sue tivo over tivo to go which has DRM built in already ... so we are all WAY beter off with small third party solutions - companies that don’t really have to kiss Hollywood **s or get permission to make a buck. And besides, they are easy to use - how hard is EyeTV to use. Click twice and you’re set - what more could you want?

Posted by jbelkin on March 4, 2006 at 2:28 PM (CST)


2 things break my heart:

1) TV shows in the iTMS aren’t HD.

2) To record my favorite TV shows in HD, I built my own DVR PC, running Windoze XP. >P~

>> To Dylan: Actually, you can pause and rewind “live” TV - with the right DVR, that is. I don’t know about TiVo, but I use SnapStream’s BeyondTV, and it lets you “pause” or “rewind” live TV. The program is designed to begin recording your live TV silently in the background, so that you can rewind or pause if real life decides to interrupt you.

Posted by theevo on March 4, 2006 at 6:40 PM (CST)


Five stars for getting the reason, but minus two for getting the impetus.

Apple isn’t necessarily avoiding the PVR because they want us to force us to BUY media.  They’re avoiding it because they want to encourage the media companies to SELL media.

Think, man.  The iPod was a device designed to play media you own without digital rights hassles—there is no way to create a DRM protected file through iTunes, unlike with Windows where this is the default.  Still, to prevent piracy, Apple has been very carfeul to limit and block any features that would be used to explicitly share music files.  This is because sharing is the real hot button issue and they don’t want to antagonize the music industry any more than necessary, because it’s industry approval that makes the iTMS so much better than its competitors (and the iPod, by extension).

Similarly, the digital video initiative leaves the device wide open to user additions—I have about 10 gigs of sketch comedy on my iPod that I’ve ripped from DVD and there are a lot of third parties getting into the iPod TV ripping space right now.  Apple isn’t going to do anything unless they could be sure all the players in broadcast media are on board, because they want the same relationship they’ve got with the music industry.

I’d really like to see the iTMS video system take off (and lower their prices).  I don’t have cable and therefore I miss out on a lot of things I’d get to see otherwise.  Deliver me the Daily Show for a dollar, and you’ll be getting $208 a year.

Posted by dasmegabyte on March 8, 2006 at 5:08 PM (CST)


Why hasn’t anyone suggested that Apple team up with one of the big cable / satellite providers and put a ITMS-like store on a dowload channel?

Maybe it’s because everyone knows Apple is historically resistant to collaboration. (the reason MS Windows has 95%+ of marketshare to apple’s 1-2%!)

Apple and Motorola could have brought us a true ipod phone, but they worked against each other instead of with each other.

Apple needs an alley. whether it be a comcast, time warner, dish in the cable satellite provider sector

or Sharp, Harmon Kardon, Yamaha in the consumer electronics sector.

one or both types of collaboration could help spur a great convergence product design.

apple is still vulnerable to Microsoft’s sinister market manipulations.

could apple offer sony a licensing agreement of the itms or even “OS X light” in exchange for help against MS? probably this is too far. But why not Yamaha or Panasonic, Dish or Comcast?  Apple is fighting a 2 front battle, and though they are doing well right now, they sure could use an alley. The question is… are they too arrogant to collaborate?

Posted by aaron hulsizer on March 13, 2006 at 6:38 AM (CST)

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