Lunching With TiVo’s E. Stephen Mack — HDTV, Home Media, Comcast, DirecTV and What’s Next For Everyone’s Favorite Living Room Little Buddy
Well last week I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of animosity from TiVo fans over a post I wrote that was critical of TiVo’s latest foray into blogging. I had written a fairly charged post about what I saw as deficiencies of their initial blogging efforts and about what I felt was a lack of legitimate effort on TiVo’s part to “join the conversation,” the tag line catch phrase that they are currently using for their corporate blog.
Well since then TiVo definitely has joined the conversation, at least with me, and I believe in a more serious way in the blogosphere going forward. On Monday TiVo’s Director of Service Operations E. Stephen Mack had lunch with Davis Freeberg and myself to talk about TiVo’s blogging efforts, their business, and the future of the product that they pioneered back in March of 1999, the PVR. As the Director of Service Operations, Stephen is in charge of TiVo’s service availability and activation process and also supports marketing promotions, software releases and internal data analysis.
To start with I do need to apologize again for the excessiveness of tone in my original rant — while it did get TiVo’s attention it was not one of my better pieces. Stephen recognizes as much as I do how important the viral aspect of their product is and that the blogosphere conversation is an important one for them to be a part of. More specifically, I think you will begin to see more posting on the TiVo blog about TiVo news as well as broader coverage by more TiVo employees to make the blog a better and better place.
Stephen also personally understands the significance of blogging and will be blogging more from time to time about TiVo on his personal blog as well at www.zeigen.com. At present he is the only TiVo employee blogging about TiVo. While he may not be the Robert Scoble of TiVo (yet) it is nice to know that we can watch his personal blog for more information and updates on what he and TiVo are up to in the future — definitely one worth subscribing too. Stephen’s new son Sammy also joined us for lunch so you can also catch up on the life of Sammy on Stephen’s blog as well.
Stephen has been with TiVo for a long time. He was one of their early employees (somewhere around 65-70) and had lots of good war stories about the early days of TiVo. Along with Bob Pony (aka TiVoPony) from TiVo’s marketing department, Stephen is an obvious choice for a company evangelist — of all the things that came through in our lunch his passion for the company stuck out to me more than anything else. Although coming from an operations perspective rather than marketing, he definitely loves TiVo and considers the work that they do important and talked about empowering the consumer with almost religious fervor.
So what did we talk about? In addition to possible improvements to their blog we talked a lot about where TiVo is going and where they have been. Most exciting to me is the upcoming launch of the TiVo Series 3 PVR. This will be the first time that we see a multi tuner HDTV standalone product from TiVo complete with the exciting HME add on features that are currently available for TiVo Series 2. While Stephen was not able to disclose any information on Series 3 shipping dates (the product is currently believed to be in outside beta testing, which was not denied), he added that they will release it “when it is ready.”
Stephen was not aware of any plans for Series 3 beyond CableCARD support (satellite high def support for instance) but said that if DirecTV were to make an aftermarket product for Media Center (that Sean Alexander has blogged about) that TiVo Series 3 would probably also be able to work with a similar set up.
It will be interesting as Microsoft and their CableCARD approved PCs begin shipping later this year to see who comes to market with the first CableCARD PVR, Microsoft or TiVo.
The HME (Home Media Engine) SDK for TiVo is something that Stephen was perhaps most excited about. Like Media Center, TiVo’s HME allows outside developers the opportunity to add on to an already great platform to give it that much more functionality as well as fun bells and whistles. Originally developed by the engineers from Strangeberry, which TiVo purchased back in January of 2004, TiVo’s HME has already allowed developers the ability to build a wide variety of plug ins for everything from Flickr to Hot or Not to eBay to RSS to home automation. TiVo had a contest last year and developers came up with even more plug ins. Here is a link to their contest winners. For a more complete list of the various HME plug ins that you may want to explore also check out apps.tv for a very good directory of what’s out there.
We also talked a bit about “couch commerce.” Davis brought up the example of being able to order a Dominoes pizza directly from your TiVo. Since Davis rarely gets out of his apartment due to his televsion attachment problem I could see the appeal for him. While Dominoes on your TiVo is not here yet today, Stephen did say that couch commerce is definitely on TiVo’s radar and brought up Fandango as an example of a current offering in this space where you can view trailers and buy movie tickets directly from your TiVo.
We talked a bit about the upcoming TiVo Comcast deal and how TiVo is building software for the Motorola box and that a lot of effort is going into this right now. He said that the company has staffed up this part of the company significantly and that it is definitely an area of focus for them at present. Stephen said that contrary to early 2005 reports that at one point the Comcast efforts had been scrapped, that these effort had been going on behind the scenes for quite some time before TiVo officially announced the deal. The New York Times had reported in January of last year that a Comcast deal had been scrapped. TiVo then CEO Mike Ramsay came out shortly after that denying that the deal was dead in a USA Today Interview. At the time I had called for a retraction that was never received from the New York Times. Subsequently the deal has been done and is something Comcast subscribers will have to look forward to.
en mentioned that, despite DirecTV’s recent move to MPEG4 content, consumer interest in their quad tuner HDTV DirecTV box is still very strong. I recently confirmed at CES with a DirecTV engineer that at least in the short term DirecTV planned to continue to support the MPEG2 TiVo box for the foreseable future while still offering an MPEG4 NDS product due out sometime in the future. This ongoing support bodes well for TiVo’s popular HDTV box.
Stephen also suggested that we not write the epitaph for the Netflix TiVo partnership just yet but was not able to elaborate on details of this previously announced partnership.
Although there are certainly rights issues that will need to be worked out, on Netflix’s most recent conference call Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had suggested that this was something still on their radar:
“A lot has been said and written about digital distribution in recent months, and so I want to be clear about what we see, and where we stand. We remain absolutely focused on positioning ourselves to lead in this market, as it becomes material at some point down the road. We are continuing to develop our download technology, and we will invest $5 million to $10 million in this area in 2006. When we offer downloading to our consumers, it will be simply a second delivery option for those consumers who desire it.”
Dave Zatz recently has posted about TiVo’s New York presence and suggested that this could be indicative of a new aggressiveness on TiVo’s part to seek out partnerships and deals. When I asked Stephen about their New York office he mentioned that this actually had more to do with the fact that new CEO Tom Rogers is from there. Although he works out here at TiVo’s headquarters in Alviso, Rogers still maintains a residence in New York and an office there allows him to operate better from there when he is on the East Coast. Of course TiVo is heavily involved in advertising and Stephen mentioned that this was an important reason for them to be there as well.
Stephen, as one would expect, did speak very positively about their CEO. Prior to serving as TiVo’s CEO Rogers was a long time Board Member of the company. Rogers was also the former CEO of Primedia and before that was a long time NBC Executive. Stephen had mentioned that his style was very hands on that one of the first thing that he did when he joined the company was to learn every employees name by photo. Although TiVo is still small enough for an executive to do that, Stephen characterized Rogers as a hands on visionary vs. former TiVo CEO Mike Ramsay’s style of visionary.
When asked about why no one has bought TiVo yet, Stephen’s answer was direct. “Because we don’t want to be bought.” In addition to a poison pill strategy that TiVo has in place, the company feels that they can be more effective as a standalone company than as a subsidiary of another company.
At present TiVo can offer services to cable providers and satellite providers and advertisers and research firms (he did note a very strong Chinese wall between the Audience Research and Measurement (ARM) team and the reset of the company) and many different firms. If they were bought it would be difficult for them to continue to be able to offer so many services to so many other companies.
Overall the lunch was very enjoyable and I found Stephen to be remarkedly candid. It is important to note that our lunch was a casual one between bloggers and although Stephen was very candid with us that his opinions are his own. He was not meeting with us in any official TiVo capacity and his opinions should not necessarily be seen as anything other than his own. Still, his efforts to meet us for lunch (on his time off on paternity leave) are serious indicators that TiVo very much does in fact want to be a part of the online conversation. Stephen spoke enthusiastically about his employer and with the passion that is the mark of a strong blogger. It was very evident to me that there is not much more in life that he loves than talking about how great a company that he works for.
And finally, a bit of TiVo trivia for you: did you know that the last Friday of every March is a company holiday at TiVo? Stephen told us a story of some of the early days of TiVo when Mike Ramsay had called the entire TiVo team together to get their product out and released against impossible odds during their initial launch in March of 1999. According to Stephen, this is a story oft told by early TiVo employee and Marketing Manger Bob Pony. The team put in all night hours, weekend work, etc. and compressed their efforts over a four week period on a project code named “Blue Moon,” and a March 31 launch deadline.
Against a ticking clock and an unbelievable mountain of work, TiVo engineers worked all day and all night towards a deadline that many saw as impossible. Then on March 31, 1999 TiVo was born. As a subsequent reward and to recognize the hard work TiVo’s employees had given during that four week push, then CEO Mike Ramsay instituted an annual company holiday on the last Friday of March. The company holiday stands to this day. Expect to see more trivia stories like this on the TiVo Blog in the future.