On Bringing TiVo to Needy iPod and iPhone Users (Including Us)

As mentioned on Backstage yesterday, we’re perturbed by buggy computer-dependent TV show recording solutions, and having used TiVo devices for years now—with reservations—we’ve been unwilling to buy into competing and inferior cable provider-rented DVRs. So we were interested in this smart, five-point post from Engadget’s Nilay Patel yesterday on fixing some long-standing problems with TiVo, particularly one section of the first point:

“The same goes for getting video out and onto portable devices—you’re being totally shown up by open-source projects like iTiVo and pyTiVo. TiVo Desktop Plus shouldn’t be an afterthought your customers have to pay extra for—it should be the defining feature of your product. Record a show, have it on your phone the next morning to watch on the train—no cable company can compete with that.”

Since TiVo is listening, we’d like to say a few words to the company as well—actually, we’d like to truly underscore that particular paragraph, because Nilay’s really correct, and the importance of that message might have been missed given all of the other suggestions. As is the case at Engadget, iLounge’s editors are TiVo fans. We have looked at the other options out there and determined that there is nothing else that we’d rather be using for recording TV programs. The TiVo interface, apart from needed resolution and input device upgrades, is the best around for DVR functionality. It says something that Apple TV has been out and attempting to compete somewhat in the same space for more than two years, but we still prefer using TiVo to the Apple TV; in fact, we’d give up the Apple TV well before the TiVo. By a wide margin. So TiVo, congratulations on doing a lot right.

But you’ve really, truly missed the boat when it comes to attracting new customers and giving your current customers what they really want: media portability. There are now tens of millions of video-hungry iPod and iPhone owners desperate for a way to watch last night’s episode of Lost on their morning train ride to the office, without paying $2 for the episode or waiting until it shows up on iTunes. If they already own TiVo hardware, they have libraries of dozens of shows that are all but useless unless they’re willing to plop down in front of one specific TV to watch them. And that’s not the way people want to consume media these days. Instead of following this obvious, growing trend, your business strategy for the past couple of years has been to try to shoehorn as much Apple TV-like stuff into TiVo boxes as possible. Note: Apple TV isn’t very popular. And it doesn’t do the one thing you guys have and Apple fans really want, namely record videos that could be watched anywhere. At least, in the right format.

The solution is simple for all of your current Series 2 and Series 3 customers: we need better, faster tools for converting on-TiVo content into iPod and iPhone formats. While we’d prefer an iPod or iPhone dock with an integrated H.264 encoder, you’re likely to run into pricing and other problems there, so for the time being, we’d live with a better, cross-platform tool for computers to handle this conversion. While Engadget’s right to suggest that “you’re being totally shown up by open-source projects like iTiVo and pyTiVo,” that’s mostly a statement of just how awkward Desktop Plus and Toast are by comparison with the simple “just export my TiVo stuff now, and fast” interface people have been waiting for. A simple, free, official TiVo tool for PC and Mac users—with support for H.264 hardware accelerators (this)—is way overdue. Trying to monetize the tool rather than marketing it as a reason to buy TiVo rather than a cable company’s competing DVR has been a colossal mistake.

What about the next generation of TiVo devices? Series 4 TiVo needs to encode all of its videos in MPEG-4 format, preferably H.264, for direct export to the iPod and iPhone without the need for transcoding. Do this, and we’ll not only upgrade—we’ll go back to recommending that other people buy TiVos, too. A recording settings menu needs to provide an easy “iPod maximum” output option, and your hardware and firmware need to be ready to boost encoding to meet whatever Apple’s new maximum bitrate will be in mid- to late-2009. Best guess target specs would be 720p, a la iTunes HD video content. Yes, a resolution bump will require you to deal with the studios, and yes, those studios are getting paid around $2.10 per iTunes HD download for their shows. Regardless, your pitch is simple: official TiVo-encoded HD videos will still contain all those commercials that people are paying Apple not to deal with. They can be Media Access Key locked. And neither the iPod nor the iPhone have a 30-second auto-skip button. Users have a better chance of watching commercials on Apple’s devices, at least briefly, than they do on a TV-tethered TiVo unit.

Engadget’s other points are important, too, but true iPod and iPhone support should have been a gimme for your company years ago, and it’s even more important today than it was when the first video iPod launched. Kids with $149 iPod nanos want ways to carry around their favorite TV shows now—and so do adults with $299 iPhone 3Gs and $399 iPod touches. It’s time to decide: are you going to be the company that makes this possible, or are you going to let someone else own a market that could easily be yours?

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