Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Buy Your TiVo through LUS? Possibilities...

Readers with a very long memory might recall my family's fondness for our TiVo digital video recorder. So no one will be surprised if I say that the story in CNET: "Deal extends TiVo's digital reach" is good news. [TiVo and DVRs in general not on your radar screen? You might want to check out the wiki article on this before going on. Don't grok TiVo? Here's my take on why you would love it.]

The CNet article reports on a deal TiVo has struck with the video-buying cooperative from which LUS will be purchasing its cable content.
TiVo said Monday it has agreed on a deal to provide digital video recorder equipment and service to customers of the more than 1,100 member companies of the National Cable Television Cooperative. The NCTC, based in Lenexa, Kan., buys hardware and programming for its member operators.
So TiVo equipment will be available to LUS, who in turn can make it available to you at no doubt discounted prices. This is good news in more than one way, however: there are at least 3 layers of nifty potential for the citizens of Lafayette in such a deal.

First, foremost, and without a doubt, TiVo is the best Digital Video Recorder (DVR) on the market. It's the Apple of DVR's: it got the best interface and hardware integration around. And that interface, like Apple's, is built on an open source operating system (in TiVo's case linux) that leaves the system open to creative hacking and creative mucking about. Unlike Apple TiVo has taken a relaxed attitude toward such hacking, making for some pretty nifty extensions. Also unlike Apple, TiVo boxes are generally some of the cheapest in its category, in part no doubt because its business model includes a monthly subscription fee for its best-in-class database of shows and their local stations and beginning and ending time.

So TiVo makes the best, least expensive DVR around. And as a bonus it's not packaged with all the anti-consumer stuff that the boxes from the big cable companies include; for instance you can transfer shows to other of your boxes and don't have to have digital cable to get the box. It would make a great basis for a set-top box for any cable company that really cared about its customers; the sort of company I expect LUS' telecom division to be. But that's only the most obvious level at which it is good news to hear that LUS will have easy access to these DVR's.

There is also the question of the future potential of the network and how TiVo's current technologies could feed into making some of those dreams happen first in Lafayette. One of the things a TiVo box can do, out of the box, is upload and download shows. The way folks think about DVRs is pretty much the way they would think about a video recorder if it was easy as pie to program, came with a fantastic on-screen version of TV Guide that allowed you to choose to record one or a series of shows in a few clicks. Form most folks it is a video recording device that really works. That's cool. But its a limiting way of thinking. Newer TiVos allow the user to move their content around between their machines, even if they are located in different states. They are addressable. And that opens up a wealth of possibilities--if you are connected to a big pipe. A limit on the current generation of DVRs is that the number of shows you can save are limited by the size of the hard disk located in the box. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to upload a show to a network server if you were about to run out of room locally? With enough bandwidth there should be nothing much preventing you from doing so but the existence of a big storage unit online with the ability to register you and send you back you video when you found the time to watch it. But..if you could do that why bother to upload at all? Surely someone else in the city has already asked for that episode of Desperate Housewives? All you really should have to do is register the channels you've paid for and you could download anything that has ever shown on your channels (OK, maybe that would be too much to hope for, but for at least the last two weeks). More? You really, really want to to watch that show on Bravo that everyone is talking about but don't want to pay for Bravo. If you're willing to pay a premium maybe Bravo would see the economic sense in providing it so that you'd have something to talk about at work. That's not enough? OK next...Why not just turn everything into pay per view showing? You get rid of all your channels and download only what you want to view. All that sound Futuristic? Unlikely? Years from realization, if ever? You apparently haven't heard about the Netflix/TiVo deal. Not if, when. Not where.... but with luck and a little vision, Lafayette.

Many folks think that where big broadband is going take us all is to the death of the programming model that the networks, broadcast TV, and cable have built their built their business around. Having TiVos as LUS' settop box in the beginning could take us several leagues down that road before other areas have a chance to even start the journey.

But, as the man on TV says: Wait, there's more! It isn't only that TiVo is the best DVR around, especially for consumers. And it isn't only that its got unbridled network capacity built in. No, what might turn out to be most exciting about getting TiVos offered with your cable service is what is hidden beneath the consumer electronics gloss: TiVos are computers. They are multimedia Linux computers. And you thought WalMart's Linux boxes were cheap--you can get a TiVo box for 99 dollars currently. I've had this little fantasy before, back in September, a fantasy I sincerely hope is prescient:
Maybe LUS could make a deal with TiVo to install their linux-based settop boxes and thereby set up a smooth transition from the cable model to a content-provider based model which will eventually require a computer-based video machine. And there is no cheaper media computer than the TiVo.

Wanna really sweeten the deal for Lafayette? Notice that TiVo is based on Linux. 'Spose you could install a nice X-11-like interface in a walled off partition and use the TV screen for a display? What Digital Divide? Just as fast as that every house that had inexpensive "cable" would have an "ok" computer with full internet connectivity. Slap on a little "open office" applications and a browser and off you go. At a price that would be unheard of.
CRT TV's make lousy monitors. But they can work. And the new LCD TVs would be great. Commandeer the IR port or better yet hang a little bluetooth module off the serial port and enable a keyboard. Use a GNU or X-11 desktop interface. Now there are all sorts of practical problems and real issues. But my guess is that they could all be overcome. And the motivation is great: in one fell swoop every cable box becomes a city-standard computer and every cable household has access to the same suite of free but capable software.

What digital divide?

2 comments:

Joe said...

I have TiVo and Netflix, too, and this sounds awesome. I wonder if the existing TiVo units will be able to work with all the extras on the LUS system, or would we need a new box (or possibly a hack?)?

John said...

Joe,

My fantasies are pretty much only fantasies--They are based on what would be possible given the basic nature and capacities of TiVo boxes. (Most folks don't realize that each TiVo box is a net-capable linux computer.)

I imagine that a software hack would be necessary for each of my suggestions and that some of them might require special liscensing from TiVo (like the online storage idea...)

This is one of those instances where five to a dozen people working together might be able to prototype up a software framework that would attract attention. Shoot, for all I know the very active TiVo hacker community might have already done a fair amount of the work. Surely someone has messed around with trying to make the Linux box avaialable for more conventional purposes...?