The new TiVo Premiere is like dinosaurs who got upgraded with laser jetpacks: Fancier, but potentially outmoded in a world populated by tons of ninjas with nuclear shuriken.
I saved up enough money to buy the first-generation TiVo - one of the Philips models, I think - when I was still in high school, and mostly used it to record episodes of Buffy and Batman the Animated Series scattered all over the vast expanse of pay TV television. Oh yeah, and skip commercials. No commercials, and Batman whenever I wanted? This is the future of TV, I was pretty sure.
Which turned out to be true. Now, cable companies (or FiOS or U-Verse) offer DVR services built right into your set-top box, for free, or for a few bucks a month. While the interface and experience they offer isn't as nice as TiVo's, most people aren't willing to drop $US300 to $US500 on a box with an additional monthly fee for a slightly prettier, more robust experience. They're happy with the (nearly free) basics: fast-forwarding through commercials, and saving shows to watch them later. That's 90 per cent of what most people want out of DVR, so for them the TiVo price is too high: Another box, another wad of cash, another subscription.
Having convinced the entire industry that its original idea was a really good one, the burden on TiVo this time around was to show us what came next. What could it be? A new cable tuner that embraced technology for cableco-provided VOD and other services? A multi-room system with a big box and many skinny satellite boxes connected by Wi-Fi? Perhaps a box with integrated Wi-Fi or maybe even integrated Powerline networking?
Though TiVo ducked these possibilities - in some cases because the tech just isn't ready, in some cases because the cost would go up - they did overhaul the user interface. Video remains visible while you are poking around all the menus, rich metadata is now available at the touch of a button while you're watching, and searches for a single show now list multiple sources including Netflix and other third-party VOD services that come with the system. There's also a new remote with a QWERTY keyboard.
Though these steps make the Premiere a much improved experience over its predecessors, it only demonstrates the point: Netflix streaming, Amazon VOD, even a QWERTY remote, are all being commoditised. Samsung, Vizio and others are building software right into their TVs or Blu-ray players that tap all of those services, delivering video, photos and news from a multitude of sources (and at least in Vizio's case) in a pretty damn good interface. Free. LG's got a Blu-ray player with a hard drive now. Where do you think that's going? Combined with that free DVR from the cable company, there's not a lot of room for TiVo there. Hell, the TVs even have built-in Wi-Fi.
That's not to mention the ultimate DVR: the internet. TiVo is freeing users more and more from the constraints of network programming schedule, the ability to watch the shows whenever I want to. But it's freedom inside the box. With Hulu, FanCast or BitTorrent, I can watch shows on just about any screen I want to. My laptop, TV or my phone. And even the ability to search one show and get multiple sources is a hallmark of Boxee, another free app for PCs, Macs and certain Linux boxes like Apple TV.
Sure, the catalogues of many services aren't as complete, the "listings" can get messy and Hulu yanks down shows I like on occasion, but this is where the future of television really is. Any screen, any time. Without significant development in the box-free world, TiVo can only be a stopgap, really.
The new TiVo's billing itself as the one true set-top box, and it does embrace the internet in some ways - the overture made to third-party apps development shows that TiVo knows the position its in. But it's fundamentally the same TiVo it's always been. That's painfully clear when you check out the site for Premiere, and then watch this video demoing the latest Boxee, which is fundamentally tied to the internet. Which one looks more like the present to you?
TiVo isn't going anywhere yet, just like the dinosaurs who hung around after that meteor threw a bunch of dust into the sky. They couldn't figure out how to use their laser jetbacks to clear out the debris, so their days were just numbered.