The article below is my original longer article on the subject. I wrote a shorter guest editorial at Engadget where there are good comments as well as a lot of comments over at Slashdot
The PVR revolution is on. All agree that this is an exciting and growing business with enormous potential. Two players seem likely candidates to dominate this huge growth market. Both major players, however, have serious problems and faults in their products and strategies that MUST be addressed.
To simplify things, at present Tivo is winning in the quality game. They make the best product. Microsoft, however, is winning in the portability game — in part due to their huge cash position and reputation as someone not to mess with in the media industry. This being said, either can become the dominate player in the home media and PVR market. In many respects it is the classic David and Goliath struggle.
Below are the top ten things that each company must do to win the living room of the American consumer. On to the list.
The top 10 things Microsoft must do to win the living room.
1. Offer HDTV PVR functionality as soon as humanly possible including an immediate announcement as to their development plans and anticipated release date.
2. Microsoft must offer quad tuners on their Media Center Edition package – two for regular broadcasts and two for HDTV. One should never ever ever get recording conflicts. The single tuner solution in today’s Microsoft box is severely antiquated.
3. Microsoft must provide easy support for 16:9 video display including the development of a generic display driver that will display their software on almost any 16:9 display correctly. Microsoft should not leave this important feature to the display and video card manufacturers — it is too important of a feature. Forcing a plasma in 4:3 format for extended periods of time creates screen burn and can ruin it.
4. Develop simple drag and drop capability for archiving PVR shows to DVD. One of the problems with Media Center has been the poor performance of the DVD player and recorder. Words like codecs and drivers and system error and divx and sonic dvd and memory buffer error should not be a part of the process. It should be simple, drag the media file in Windows Explorer to the CD and press burn. Done.
5. Media Center must be better able to handle large media libraries. In the “instant on” world of today (particularly the music player) must be indexed and optimized to create an instant entertainment environment. Long wait times for music loading is unacceptable. With my own large mp3 library it can take upwards of 5 minutes to get my music playing.
6. Microsoft must create “my radio” and a corresponding “my radio” guide. Similar to television, there is no reason that Media Center cannot time shift radio broadcasts. If I would like to listen to KFOG live at the Archives on Wednesday morning at 3 a.m., so be it. If I would like to get a season pass to the Howard Stern show and listen to it on the way home from work each evening rather than early in the morning, this is my perogative. These files should be saved in mp3 format (or to cave in at least a little, wma).
7. Microsoft truly must create an error free system. Their system should be as stable and error free as Tivo’s Linux based system. My Tivo has never had a “corrupted driver” ever ever. I should not have to reinstall hardware or software or devices or any of the above nonsense. This may quite simply, however, be way way way too much to ever ask from Redmond. In light of their instability issues they should at minimum require Media Center to be far more responsive to our old friend control-alt-delete. Frequently using control-alt-delete will not kill Media Center. Instead you must either kill the ehome process and/or the Windows Media Player process or oftentimes even reboot the PC. Entirely unacceptable. If I click control-alt-delete to kill Media Center it should be smart enough to figure out that if killing the processes must be done then, darn it all, just do it for me.
8. Microsoft must provide ratings and preferences in the user profile rather than in the files or players. They must also create some kind of suggestions feature similar to Tivo without violating patent law.
One huge step that Microsoft took in the right direction was allowing mp3 “ratings” in Windows Media Player. These ratings could then be used to create playlists of favorite music in MCE. The present problem is that these ratings can only be applied to one individual in a household. If I like Nirvana and my wife prefers Alan Jackson then we are out of luck. My 5 star may be her one star and vice versa. Microsoft did take a step in the right direction with their “ratings migration” plug in. However, this still confines ratings to the file (one step better than simply the player)…. and it doesn’t work with the Windows Media Player Technical 10 Beta.
9. Microsoft must provide simple filtering capabilities and ratings for pictures like that of music. If I want to say show pictures of John and Alan and Pete and Bob while we play poker and Miles Davis plays in the background I should have a simple filter tool in “my pictures” that allows for me to designate individuals by name. Similarly I should be able to say see pictures of Italy in 2004 or San Francisco in 1990 or of my dog Buddy in San Francisco in 2003. You get the idea. I should be also be able to rate my pictures like my music.
10. External Applications. Microsoft should provide a host of optional plug in services for Media Center. These should include viewing your email by remote, voicemail by remote, caller ID, possible vehicle tracking by remote, home automation features including lights, home alarm security, window shades, heating and air conditioning, my RSS feeds, etc.
The top 10 things Tivo must do to win the living room.
1. Tivo must produce a stand alone HDTV unit. The production of the Hughes HR10-250 was a great first step. This, however, is only an acceptable unit if you happen to be a DirecTV subscriber. This does not address cable HDTV users or other satellite subscribers. For my brother, whose landlord will not allow him to install a dish on his roof, there is still no HDTV PRV option. If they can produce a HDTV unit to work with DirecTV, they can produce a stand alone unit. The development and expected delivery of this unit should be announced immediately.
2. Tivo must provide ethernet connectivity to their HDTV unit and include the ability to share recorded files with a Windows based PC. The fact that the ethernet ports are disabled on the Hughes HR10-250 is simply ridiculous — especially in light of Tivo’s recent FCC victory in approving “Tivo to go.” Tivo should provide an easy way to network your Tivo with a PC and copy files from your Tivo drive to your PC. It is also amazing that in this day and age Tivo still requires the archaic method of connecting my unit to an actual phone hard line in order to use the unit. Ethernet internet access should provide all guide data and any communications necessary between myself and Tivo or my content provider. Phone lines should not be required. Wi-fi functionality should also be an option for connectivity for file sharing, internet access and client/host communications.
3. Tivo must provide a DVD burner with all units. Copying should be as simple as selecting a program and pressing burn to disc on a menu.
4. Tivo must create a my pictures and my music option for their HDTV units that can access a music and picture library via an ethernet connection. Although I personally have not tested the “home media” option (HR10-250 does not allow it) this is significant. It is important that their home media option be as strong as Microsoft’s current media center “my pictures” and “my music” line up.
5. Tivo must offer a software only package for sale that will run on any Windows based PC and turn any Windows based PC into a PVR. This software must be compatible with a variety of HDTV video cards. This would be a huge revenue producer for Tivo. They could call it Tivo for Windows. People will pay a premium for this software. Tivo should leverage their name brand recognition and become a powerful software player.
6. Tivo must create wi-fi enabled devices to access your Tivo from any television and media from any room in the house. It should not matter which television that I’m watching, kitchen, living room, bedroom, etc. All should have the same “my Tivo” running. I would also mention this as a must do for Microsoft except for the fact that they have already announced that this technology is on it’s way in the form of “extender” units due out by year end to early 2005. You should also have the option of transferring your Tivo shows to your laptop for offsite viewing.
7. Tivo must allow me to connect an external hard drive to the unit. The robust 250 gig drive on my Hughes HR10-250 will be a dinosaur in a few years when a terabyte is standard. It is inconvenient for me to have to hack into my Tivo box to upgrade storage. I should be able to do this as simply by plugging in a USB 2 external hard drive.
8. Tivo must improve their recommendation feature. The thumbs up / thumbs down system is a good one but it frequently gets derailed by erroneous entries, changed taste, etc. I should have the opportunity to review all of my previous thumb ratings and alter them at any time for improved recommendations. Similarly there should be a feature like Amazon where viewers who like “Six Feet Under” also liked “XYZ” or what not – an also purchased sort of system. There should also be a method to assign thumb ratings by user. For instance if I am logged in as Tom then all of the ratings go with me. If my wife is logged in she should be able to rate her shows to her taste so that we can each get our own unique suggestions.
9. Similar to the suggestion for Microsoft, Tivo should develop PVR and a very comprehensive guide for “my radio.” It is essential that this content be able to be pulled off the Tivo unit for use on a laptop, mp3 player or car mp3 player broadcast. They should also develop the same host of other external applications including email, RSS feed reader, home automation, alarm, lights, shades, security, etc.
10. Tivo needs to partner (possibly merge) with a cash flow positive company. Tivo is losing money. Yes, the talk turns to profitability at some point but at the present they do not have the bank account that Microsoft does to fend off lawsuits and the like. C’mon guys get a clue. Your stock has gone from $12 earlier this year to a new low of $4.30 a share today.
Tivo is at the forefront of the PVR business and has the best name brand and honestly the best product quality at this point due to their huge advantage with HDTV. My brother suggested the other day that they consider merging with Netflix who does have real earnings. This could be a possibility and I think that there are board relationships as well as corporate synergies where this might work.
As a semi-related sidenote, when is one of these two going to come up with a “my art” button. I heard a while back that Bill Gates was running around buying up all the digital rights to art. Whatever happened to this? With the beauty of todays high end plasma and lcd displays I’d love to be able to select an artist and have their entire digitized collection at my fingertips. This should especially be easy with all paintings over 75 years old as any copyright problems shouldn’t exist. Frankly I’m surprised someone hasn’t already done this and at least started selling CDROMs of public domain paintings. As to paintings still copyrighted, certainly these should be avaialable as part of one of the systems above or at least at minimum for purchase by the end user. These images of course should be high res and brilliant. This would save me a lot of time from my frequent Google image searches by artist name.