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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