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Sunday, June 3, 2012

My theory for why Tivo still exists in 2012

I have a theory as to why Tivo manages to still exist. They are a patent shell with only the tiniest amount of technology involved.

Normally, when you have something relatively horrible which only barely manages to work, someone else will come along with a better product. This will either light a fire under the incumbent, or they will keel over and die, and a new champion will take over.

To date, neither has happened. We've had the same old basic status quo in terms of this technology since they showed up on the scene in 1999. There have been features added along the way, but the resulting product has always felt like a presidential election: you're choosing the lesser of two evils, and there's nothing truly great to pick.

Sure, there have been alternatives along the way, but come on. None of them were truly great, either. Did you really take Microsoft's "UltimateTV" satellite box seriously? How about all of the cruft that you get along with your cable company's "on demand" feature? Those things actually manage to be worse!

To me, this can only mean one thing: the industry is afraid of the patent situation. If you do something in that space, you are going to have to deal with their land sharks. If you infringe on it, you either end up paying for it, or you cross-license it, or whatever. You can't really do either unless you are a big firm with the kind of war chest which will sustain you through this kind of legal wrangling.

There's more, though. I've heard from a variety of sources about what actually goes on inside those boxes and the company for that matter. Apparently, some of the newer ones run Flash (!) for their user interface. So, yes, they have an embedded box being asked to wrangle Flash. This is the same thing which makes normal machines drag and inspired my original "Bozo Loop" rant.

But hey, that's not the end of the craziness. Apparently, only some of the menus are this new high-def stuff. At some point, you will do something and it will drop you into the old menus with the "blue weiners" and all. My sources imply this is because there was a severe divide between the company's actual engineers and a bunch of contractors. Where you cross over from one to the other in the UI is also where you cross from employees to contractors and back.

I thought this sounded mighty familiar, so I checked, and wouldn't you know it? Conway's Law strikes again. They have designed a system which is a copy of the communications structure in the organization. The contractors and regular engineers are obviously split up, and so there is an interface which is split in two and has to throw things back and forth.

As for me, I have a 6 year old "Series2" unit which is using a grandfathered lifetime service which was transferred from my original 1999 series 1 box. By my reckoning, they have been losing money on me since 2001 or so. That's the way it's going to be until it dies, and then at that point, I won't replace it. That event will give me enough of a push to look at watching everything through my computers somehow.

Cord cutting isn't arbitrary. It's a deliberate thing brought about by the failure of existing methods to continue delivering what customers want.