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TiVo

Technically older than ReplayTV by a month, TiVo has managed to remain independent (at least as of this writing). That could change. Some have speculated that AOL Time Warner could do worse than buying the remaining 82% of TiVo that it doesn't already own, perhaps rolling that into the AOLTV/DirecTV set-top box offering that was scheduled to ship in the final quarter of 2001.

TiVo cut 80 employees from its staff of about 350 in April 2001, part of a restructuring that founder, CEO, and President Michael Ramsey said was meant to position the company for the long haul. (For additional details, see Table 3.4, "TiVo Vital Statistics.") At the same time, TiVo tried to increase its revenues by raising the cost of a lifetime subscription to its service from $199 to $249. Fees for the monthly subscription plan, however, stayed the same.

Despite a tough year for all technology and electronics companies—particularly ones that are dependent on skittish consumers who are worried about an uncertain economy—many analysts have remained relatively upbeat about TiVo's prospects, based largely on the affinity that people continue to show for the TiVo product. It's easy to love.

TiVo: Showing the Love

How much do people love their TiVo? A snippet from the popular TiVo Underground board on http://www.avsforum.com gives us a hint.

Board member "Loner" has drawn a great deal of interest by relating his good luck in finding a 20-hour Philips-manufactured TiVo IED at a Target store in Akron, Ohio on close-out for only $139. He then took his receipt to a nearby Best Buy store, which agreed to match the price, and bought another. When he informs the forum community that he plans to give the second TiVo away as a wedding gift, he draws this response from "nymjk":

Wait a minute!!!

You're giving a TiVo as a wedding present????

I mean, heck, I love TiVo, I really do. But I sure hope you are good friends with the bride because once the groom gets his hands on a TiVo, his new bride will be ONE LONELY GAL.

Table 3.4 – TiVo Vital Statistics*

Status

Independent public company (TIVO) 2000 revenues: $3.6 million

Business model

Developer of personalized television software and services

Founded

August 1997

Co-founder, President, and CEO

Michael Ramsay

Backers, Past and Present

Philips Electronics, Sony, AOL Time Warner, DirecTV, Discovery Networks, Comcast, Cox Communications, Paul Allen (Vulcan Ventures)

Headquarters

Alviso, California


Reaching Out to the Consumer

What best distinguishes the TiVo offering from the competition is neither the hardware nor the software, although both are well executed. It's the company's single-minded focus on ease of use and customer comfort.

It begins with the TiVo logo, a smiling bipedal television sporting an extraterrestrial set of antennae. Like a friendly visitor from another planet, it radiates goodwill. At the initial bootup, consumers are greeted by an animation featuring the happy little creature, frolicking across the screen (see Figure 3.13). The whole message of this window-dressing is, "Forget the fact that you've just plugged in a powerful proprietary PowerPC-based Linux computer in your living room and given it control of your family's television. You can do this. It's fun. In fact, it's child's play."

Figure 3.13 TiVo's mascot evokes a feeling of playfulness to make consumers feel more comfortable with the device.

Clearly, the message works.

TiVo has carried through with this mission of coddling the consumer by providing its own documentation to supplement that of the manufacturer (alternatively Sony, Philips, or Thomson/RCA). Although the ReplayTV units you receive might ship with only a bare-bones black-and-white Panasonic operations manual translated into multiple languages—and practically incomprehensible in any of them—TiVo comes with a slick user guide featuring clear language and colorful illustrations.

Another example of TiVo's consumer focus is the clever and comfortable remote control. TiVo has been awarded at least four patents for its remote control's design and housing. Although you might initially be confused about the unique "thumbs up/thumbs down" buttons and cause TiVo to register your vote for a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down" vote about recording more of such programs, operating the unconventional and uncluttered device quickly becomes second nature. In contrast, both the UltimateTV and ReplayTV remotes are bristling with buttons—most of which never get used in the course of daily TV viewing.

Figure 3.14 shows the differences between the TiVo remote control and those that ship with UltimateTV and ReplayTV.

Figure 3.14 The TiVo remote (front center) has fewer buttons and a more intuitive design than remotes that ship with the (rear, left-to-right) UltimateTV, ShowStopper combo IED/TV, and ShowStopper standalone.

Keep in mind that all TiVo remote controls are not created equal. Although the Philips DirecTV/TiVo combo box—and a similar one made by Hughes Electronics—both feature the classic hourglass-shaped TiVo remote control, a Sony-manufactured TiVo uses a slightly different design. Although the layout is different, the function buttons are nearly identical.

Hardware

Unlike ReplayTV's abortive initial attempt at building and selling its own branded hardware—resulting in $1,499 boxes that languished on retail shelves—TiVo planned from the get-go to organize itself as a design and development firm and service provider. This decision left the brute-force manufacturing side to world-class players such as Sony, Philips, and Thomson.

In contrast to the Panasonic ShowStopper ReplyTV design, the typical TiVo allows you to use the device even when the remote is hidden away somewhere in the sofa cushions (although this does not apply to all TiVo devices). Common TiVo front-panel controls include a TiVo button (which takes the user to the TiVo's main IED function screen), a guide button (which also toggles the live TV display), as well as buttons for Select, Menu, Standby and more. Indicator lights let the user know whether the machine is powered up, when it's receiving IR codes, and when it's recording or connecting to the ReplayTV service via modem.

The rear of the TiVo is similarly well equipped. It has connectors for an RJ-11 telephone jack, A/C power cord, two satellite inputs, one cable or antenna input, and two connectors that are not yet supported by the TiVo operating system: an IR blaster port and a serial port for connecting to a cable receiver.

TiVo provides signal outputs in the form of two sets of right- and left-channel RCA audio connectors, two composite video outputs, one S-video connector, an optical SPDIF digital port, and an F-type connector for older TVs that don't support composite or S-video connections.

The locations of TiVo's front- and rear-panel features are shown in Figure 3.15.

TiVo has shown itself to be resourceful and versatile in the area of attracting world-class consumer electronics companies as its manufacturing partners, giving credibility to its product line and adding to its perceived stamina in the marketplace (see Tables 3.5 and 3.6).

Figure 3.15 Front and rear views of the DirecTiVo TiVo/DirecTV satellite receiver combo box, built by Philips.

Table 3.5 – Standalone TiVo IEDs

Manufacturer/Model

Hours of Storage

Works With*

List Price**

Philips HDR212

20

A, C, S

$199

Philips HDR312

30

A, C, S

$299

Philips HDR612

60

A, C, S

$599

Sony SVR2000

30

A, C, S

$399

Thomson

40

A, C, S

$430 PVR10UK***


*A=Antenna, C=Cable/Digital Cable, S=Satellite (DirecTV, Dish Network, and so on)

**Current as of December 2001

***United Kingdom only

Table 3.6 – DirecTV Receivers with TiVo

Manufacturer/Model

Hours of Storage

Works With

List Price*

Hughes GXEBOT

35

DirecTV only

$399

Philips DSR6000

35

DirecTV only

$299

Sony SAT-T60

35

DirecTV only

$399


*Current as of December 2001

Be sure to check street prices for the units listed in the preceding two tables. The $399 Hughes GXEBOT has been seen selling online for as little as $189. Sales and rebates can have major impact on pricing of these devices.

Inside the TiVo resides the proprietary TiVo application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC), which provides the lion's share of the device's video and interface "personality." The ASIC works in conjunction with an IBM PowerPC 403GCX embedded RISC processor running at 66MHz, along with an IBM CS22 MPEG decoder and an STi5505 OMEGA-DVD chip, which handles DVD back-end decoding and host processing functions.

Other notable components include the onboard Conexant V.90 modem and abundant memory chips, including Hyundai 16-bit DRAMs and 16-bit, 143Mhz SDRAMs.

A close-up view of the interior of a Philips-built DirecTiVo appears in Figure 3.16.

Software

TiVo's Linux-based operating system offers essentially the same basic software features that are found in the ReplayTV and UltimateTV IEDs. Product differentiation, in this case, really comes down to the implementation—packaging and accessibility—of those features. TiVo's execution is arguably the best in the market, combining elegant simplicity in design with a powerful set of underlying capabilities. Best of all for TiVo's faithful hack-minded underground, the Linux system is essentially an open book for developers, practically inviting audience participation in the reverse engineering and enhancement of the device.

Figure 3.16 The DirecTiVo motherboard revealed.

TIP

If you're unsure of whether you have the latest version of the TiVo OS, you can check out which version you're currently using.

Press Menu, and then select Messages & Setup. Select System Information.

Using this screen, you can not only find out which version of the OS you have, but also the make and model of your device and your TiVo account number.

The Operating System

Like ReplayTV, the operating system that ships with the boxed product continues to receive periodic updates that contain new features and fixes you will want to take advantage of. Some of the more recent updates occurred in Summer 2001 for users of the DirecTiVo combo box, followed by a Fall 2001 update for users of standalone TiVo boxes. Some of the additional features that were added in the 2.5x updates of the TiVo software include these:

  • Capability to record two programs at once (DirecTiVo).

  • TiVo activated the second satellite tuner in DirecTiVo receivers, allowing you to record two programs on different channels—even while watching a third, already-recorded program. This feature does a great deal to close the gap between TiVo and UltimateTV, but it is limited to DirecTV satellite service subscribers with a dual-LNB dish and a DirecTiVo combo box.

  • Saved disk space (standalone TiVo only).

  • A new option for saving disk space—reducing the video quality so that your recordings can take up less storage capacity—allows you to fit more programs in Now Playing.

  • Capability to skip to "tick marks."

  • While fast forwarding or rewinding, press the Advance button to instantly jump to the next "tick mark." Tick marks represent 15- to 30-minute increments, depending on the length of the program. It's a faster way to navigate around a long program.

  • Enhanced WishLists.

  • TiVo has improved the speed and ease of browsing WishLists, the lists of programs that are returned by programming searches. Also added was the ability to search for similar words in Keyword and Title WishList searches, such as a search for both horse and horseback, or 49er and 49ers.

  • Improved parental controls.

  • New controls and options allow you to, among other things, turn off the automatic relock feature. Apparently, a few too many TiVo users temporarily disabled parental controls for the babysitter or an overnight guest, forgetting that they relock after four hours. TiVo also added more options for setting ratings limits on TV content.

  • Shorter phone calls (DirecTiVo).

  • By using the satellite to deliver TiVo Service information, such as TiVolution Magazine and Showcases, TiVo was able to reduce the length of the system's nightly telephone sessions.

These new features build upon the previous 2.0 software updates, which incorporated the following highlights:

  • Faster performance when using the program guide or making selections from menus.

  • New remote control shortcuts, allowing you to reach the Now Playing menu faster (by pressing the TiVo button twice), and enabling easier deletions of programs using the Clear button.

  • Title WishLists, allowing programming searches by title.

  • A "Keep at Most 5" command that limits repeat recordings (such as Season Passes and auto-recording WishLists) to a maximum of five episodes at a time.

  • Additional parental controls, such as requiring a password to delete programs that violate parental limits "so that your kids (or your roommate!) can't delete them."

The ability to record an extra few minutes before or after a program was another of the many useful additions not found in the first version of the TiVo operating system.

Although none of the features incorporated into the 2.0 or 2.5 software updates offers overwhelming improvements to the overall user experience, it does show that TiVo programmers are actively working on the product, filing off the rough edges and tuning the interface in direct response to customer feedback.

The User Interface

TiVo has the edge in the interface department. The company seems to have thought through how consumers really use the device, and it shows the results of that forethought in the way the system appears to have an uncanny knack for surfacing handy features at opportune times.

Example: You sit down and turn on the IED. Using the channel guide, you find a show you would really like to see. Unfortunately, you have already missed half the program. What can you do? Unless you got lucky and the IED was previously set to that channel—or you're willing to settle for watching just the second half—you need to go through the tedious process of creating a search for the show by title, looking for another opportunity to record it. With TiVo, the answer to the dilemma is obvious and intuitive:

  1. When you press the Record button, a pop-up menu appears.

  2. Select More Recording Choices (see Figure 3.17).

  3. Figure 3.17 TiVo offers a wide range of choices to refine your recording options.

  4. Press the right arrow button and scroll down and select View Upcoming Episodes.

  5. TiVo displays a list of alternative times when you can record the show (see Figure 3.18).

Of course, this is handy for recording, say, an old movie that airs frequently, but no video IED currently on the market can help you if you miss out on the season premiere of your favorite show. If your device was tuned to a different channel at the time it aired, you will have to wait (and hope) until the network shows it again in a few months.

In general, the learning curve seems significantly shorter when learning how to use TiVo than it does for ReplayTV or UltimateTV.

Conversely, some might find the TiVo too simplistic. Fewer buttons on the remote translates into fewer features that are available at the touch of a finger. As a result, more of the advanced features are hidden away behind layers of onscreen menus. In the end, the best way to choose which video IED will be right for you is to visit multiple electronics stores (right now it's highly unlikely that you'll find a single store that carries all three brands of video IEDs). This allows you to experience each machine's interface first-hand and find the one that best suits you.

Figure 3.18 TiVo's user interface takes into account that you might decide to record something that is already in progress, and gives you some intuitive options.

TiVo's Hidden Backdoor

Another facet of TiVo that has turned many of its more technically oriented owners into lifelong fans is the ability to customize the system through the use of undocumented "backdoor codes." These codes are easily accessed, and in many cases, they are quite powerful. They are so powerful, in fact, that some of the codes have the ability to completely (and perhaps permanently) disable the system if used incorrectly. Because the manufacturer only grudgingly admits the very existence of these codes, and no official documentation exists for them, their true functions in some cases are still unknown. It is only through the trial and error experiences of intrepid TiVo users that they have come to light at all, being passed from one TiVo owner to the next in e-mail messages and user forum postings.

TIP

As with ReplayTV, TiVo devices have included certain Easter eggs for those with the free time to find them. One such "trick" is called the Shagwell Easter egg and can be found by doing the following:

  1. Turn on your TV's closed captioning.

  2. Press the TiVo button to go to TiVo Central.

  3. Choose Pick Programs to Record.

  4. Select Search by Title and choose All Programs.

  5. Type Shagwell.

  6. Press the Thumbs Up key.

Recognize anyone? (Apparently the TiVo 2.0 team included some die-hard Austin Powers fans.)

For TiVos that are still running pre-2.0 versions of the software, the "backdoor mode" is accessed through the following steps:

  1. Press the TiVo button on the remote to access TiVo Central.

  2. Choose Pick Programs to Record.

  3. Choose Search By Title.

  4. Choose All Programs.

  5. Using the remote control and the onscreen keyboard, type in the search term 0v1t (TiVo spelled backwards, substituting zero for the letter O and the numeral one instead for the letter I).

  6. Press the Thumbs-Up key.

For TiVos that are equipped with version 2.0 of the TiVo operating system, use the same procedure, but substitute the search term 2 0 TCD (note the single space between the 2 and the zero, and another space between the zero and TCD). To enter backdoor mode for systems that are running version 2.5 of the software, use the search term B D 2 5 (putting a single between each character).

When you successfully complete the sequence, you are rewarded with a message indicating that backdoor mode is activated. To exit backdoor mode, reboot the TiVo.

You can get additional codes by searching the http://www.tivocommunity.com user forum for "backdoor codes." Before attempting to use any of these codes, be aware that you might be risking the future functionality of your TiVo, so proceed with caution.

CEC Codes

One category of backdoor codes for TiVo uses the Clear, Enter, Clear (C-E-C) button sequence, followed by an additional key that defines the function. A few of these codes include the following:

  • C-E-C Thumbs-Up

  • This gives you access to TiVo's log files on your TV screen. Page up and page down to move through the log information, which chronicles everything you've been doing on your TiVo. Use the right arrow to move through the log files. Press the left arrow key to exit to the normal TiVo menus.

  • C-E-C-0 (in version 2.0 only)

  • This turns off the display of "Scheduled Suggestions" in the ToDo List. It also removes the black bar from behind the clock (see S-P-S-9-S).

  • C-E-C-5

  • This toggles on and off the "overshoot correction" employed during fast forwarding.

  • C-E-C-Fast Forward

  • This reboots the TiVo (and thus turns off backdoor mode).

CCEE Codes

The following codes utilize the sequence Clear, Clear, Enter, Enter (C-C-E-E), followed by an additional key that defines the function. You must enter these commands while displaying the System Information screen, as described earlier in this chapter.

  • C-C-E-E-2

  • This toggles on and off the Debug mode, which sends debugging output to the /var/log/tvdebuglog file on the TiVo's hard drive. This setting remains on even after rebooting, so the procedure must be repeated to turn it off. It might not be advisable to leave this logging function running for extended periods of time.

  • C-C-E-E-8

  • This takes you to the Channels You Watch page, but with no channels selected. This can be used as a shortcut for clearing your channel list.

Thumbs Up/Down Codes

A few known codes utilize a series of Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down (TU/TD) key presses to activate the function. Because these codes are still being found and are not well understood, they should be considered experimental.

  • TD-TD-TU-Instant Replay

  • When activated while displaying the ToDo List, this turns on Scheduled Suggestions. When performed from the Now Playing list, it displays the hidden recordings, such as paid programming.

  • TD-TU-TD-Instant Replay

  • When performed from the Now Playing display, it calls up a new menu called Clips on Disk, which offers access to the same hidden recordings broken up into clips. Note that if you don't have clips stored on your hard drive, this code reboots the TiVo.

Other Codes

Some additional codes are available that do not require the TiVo to have backdoor mode enabled. One set of codes uses the sequence of pressing Select, Play, Select, followed by a fourth button that determines the requested function; then press Select again to set the code.

For instance, the sequence Select, Play, Select, 9, Select (abbreviated as S-P-S-9-S) toggles a digital clock display in the bottom-right corner of the screen. To turn it off, repeat the procedure. The clock remains visible until you exit the live or recorded TV display by going to a TiVo menu, and then return to the show.

Additional codes using this procedure include the following:

  • S-P-S-Instant Replay-S

  • This toggles a status display in the bottom-right corner, displaying information on what the TiVo is currently doing. It's not too useful, really. Like the clock display, you must repeat the procedure to turn it off, and then exit to a TiVo menu and return to the program to make it disappear.

  • S-P-S-Pause-S

  • Toggles the "fast disappear" of the progress bar at the bottom of the screen.

  • S-P-S-3-0-S

  • This feature appears to be enabled in versions 1.3, and 2.5 of the software, but not versions 2.0 or 2.01. It toggles the 30-second skip mode on and off. This command turns the Skip to End button (also known as the Advance button) into a 30-second skip button. This can be extremely handy for zipping past commercials without zipping right past part of the show you're trying to watch.

Other "non-backdoor" codes include the following:

  • TiVo 0

  • Plays the TiVo character startup movie.

  • TiVo 1

  • Shortcut to the Now Playing list. (In version 2.5, it goes to the Season Pass Manager.)

  • TiVo 2

  • Shortcut to the ToDo list.

  • TiVo 3

  • Shortcut to WishLists (in version 2.0 and above).

  • TiVo 4

  • Shortcut to the Search by Title screen.

  • TiVo 5

  • Shortcut to view live TV in version 2.0. Shortcut to the Browse by Channel screen in versions 1.3 and 2.5.

  • TiVo 6

  • Shortcut to the Browse by Time screen.

  • TiVo 7

  • Shortcut to the Manual Record screen.

  • TiVo 8

  • Shortcut to the TiVo's Suggestions screen.

  • TiVo 9

  • Shortcut to the Network Showcases screen (renamed simply Showcases in version 2.5).

  • TiVo TiVo

  • Shortcut to the Now Playing List (versions 2.0 and above).

Conclusions

It's easy to discover why TiVo has such a loyal customer base. It is an extremely well thought out consumer device, with a responsive and capable team of engineers and developers behind it.

What's still missing? Users would like to see numerous other features, and it's likely that many of these software bells and whistles will appear by the next software revision in 2002.

Will TiVo add the full commercial bypass features that ReplayTV has in its 4000 series machines? It's unlikely. In fact, TiVo's chief technical officer has flatly denied any plans to do so, ever. The company would rather make friends than enemies among the Hollywood power brokers—at least for the time being. However, if ReplayTV is not ultimately prevented from enabling the bypass feature through legal challenges, and it later turns into a big hit with consumers, TiVo's allegiances could change.

Will TiVo add WebTV-like e-mail and Web-browsing capabilities? It doesn't seem to be a priority for either the developers or the consumers. However, that doesn't mean that it might not be appealing to some of TiVo's potential partners. (Why not a YahooTV set-top box to compete with AOL and MSN in the future?)

Regardless of what changes come about, TiVo has already established itself as one of the more viable video IED options on the market.

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