Tuesday, April 19, 2005

"Search giants court TiVo"

A couple of times in the past I've mentioned our household's love affair with TiVo on these pages. We don't watch a whole lot of TV (by the standards of surveys taken of Americans) but what we do watch we actually want to see—but only when we have time. If we're keeping a kid that evening I'd rather have fun with the child than catch the show. TiVo removes any possible conflict by making time-shifting recordings actually practical. We set up the the machine to record our show, say "Lost," and we don't need to know if the network shifts the time or starts running some reruns. We just get the new shows whenever they appear and watch them when we care to. And we watch zero ads. I now find watching standard TV with ads excruciating. If you could easily skip them, so would you. It's amazing what we learn to put up with.

The point is only this: watching TiVo is not like watching TV. TV demands your time and attention on its arbitrary schedule. TiVo is your servant. It stores things till when you want them and doesn't force you to watch anything you don't want to watch. If you want to take a phone call about homework, it lets you pause the show while you finish and then lets you start it up from where you stopped.

My purpose isn't to promote TiVo, just to give you some background on why you might like such a service preparatory to referring you to the story "Search giants court TiVo" that goes into some pretty nice detail about the corporate reasons that Yahoo or Google might want to acquire the company and the technological rationale behind thinking it a good fit. Interesting. But it doesn't get to the heart of the matter for me: that the sort of things that TiVo allows and which folks love is about to move online in a major way. The "channels and schedules" model of television and cable is about to die. The death will be messy and probably prolonged but it is in the midst of happening (something else we've written about from time to time). What will replace is it a sort of on-network TiVo: downloadable video streaming that you can pause, combined with really gooda video search (harder than you would think) which lets you find what you want to watch. The day will come when this is way we will watch our monitors. (Though we'll still call it TV, no doubt.)

This is why we'll need that 60 megs that pundits talk about American households needing in the next few years: download a stream of video and take a full-screen video call from a grandchild about the Pythagorean theorem in his homework and you've bound up the available bandwidth in a 60 meg stream. Your wife's TV show starts stuttering and you hear about it. Add a white board discussion of how the theorem works with a little hopefully interesting detail about using it to build houses from my days as a carpenter and the whole household network is in trouble and you have to shut down some function. If I had the bandwidth I could do this today. And I'd like to be able to. It may sound pie in the sky but then TiVo sounded like a fantasy to most just a few short years ago. Now, at least in some households, it's indispensable. When the online services breaks, many, many more will want the control of TV that it represents.

Of course there's a fly in the ointment. To quote the story:
"To be sure, there will be many issues to iron out before successfully transferring Web video to the television. TiVo will likely have to expand its storage capabilities. The quality of Web video must improve for television viewing. And bandwidth capabilities in homes must expand, among other considerations." (my emphasis)
They are right, of course, and my fantasy, and Google's, Yahoo's and TiVo's will remain a fantasy until we get that bandwidth. The only real solution is a fiber-optic connection to the home. Nothing else has the capacity.

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