Blogging With JupiterResearch and How TiVo and Microsoft Ought Best to Fast Forward the DVR Revolution

Well it’s not every day that you get invited to view Jupiter Research’s published reports. Sure you could spring $22,000 a year for a subscription and it’s probably worth it if you are going to drop a few million dollars pursuing a new marketing campaign, but for the rest of us our exposure to Jupiter has been primarily through the quotes that we typically find in the media from influential analysts like Michael Gartenberg or Joe Wilcox.

So imagine my excitement when I was offered the chance to get a copy of a JupiterResearch analyst report and actually write about it and engage them in a dialog regarding their thinking and research.

After perusing the various report titles one immediately stuck out, “PC and Standalone Digital Video Recorders, Strategies to Cope with an Uncertain Market.” As anyone who has read my blog in the past knows, this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. The report was written by Lead Analysts Andrea Wood and Michael Gartenberg with Contributing Analysts Avi Greengart, Vipul Patel and Todd Chanko under the Research Direction of Michael Gartenberg. The report was published September 2, 2004.

Although my commentary and analysis on “PC and Standalone Digital Video Recorders, Strategies to Cope with an Uncertain Market” will address both the standalone TiVo type DVR as well as the PC based DVR, much of my writing will be focused specifically on Microsoft’s Media Center Edition platform and TiVo’s standalone potential as I feel that these platforms represent the best chance for standalone success in the marketplace today. Certainly there are other platforms however and although “PC and Standalone Digital Video Recorders, Strategies to Cope with an Uncertain Market” singles out both TiVo and Microsoft specifically for case studies, it is worth recognizing that the standalone DVR business is more than a two horse race.

After reading JupiterResearch’s report I would offer up six important things for Microsoft and TiVo to consider as they continue to grow their standalone DVR businesses. My post will attempt to corroborate these points with Jupiter’s research where possible but much of my review is my own personal take.

1. Microsoft needs to shore up the remaining bugs in their Media Center technology and offer a compelling after market support package for Media Center buyers.

2. TiVo should consider adopting a cell phone model and give away TiVos with a service contract. People don’t want to pay for a unit and pay a monthly fee. Both Microsoft and TiVo should consider offering people 90 days free to try their units with a no questions asked return policy.

3. Microsoft and TiVo both should more strongly invest in point of sale training to better push their products through the retail channels. Both should consider finding innovative ways to demo their technology to high end consumers like more hotel placements, airline service, etc.

4. Microsoft and TiVo both should offer a version of their software on a standalone basis. They should sell one version cheaply through outlets like Costco and online and sell another version through a “Geek Squad” type Best Buy partnership for those who would not feel comfortable installing a tv card in their existing PC.

5. Microsoft and TiVo both should be as forthcoming as possible about an upgrade path to cable and satellite supported HDTV for the high end.

6. Both should create testimonial marketing programs to better promote the unique and value added services offered by their products over the cable and satellite freebies including DVD burning, access to (hopefully soon to be offered) unique micro content, remote and mobile viewing capabilities, and many additional upcoming potential features (suite of telephone services, home automation, etc.).

Well with that out of the way, let’s talk about Jupiter’s research.

To start with, what does Jupiter think about the future for the DVR?

Well they think that it’s going to be an awfully tough road ahead for the standalone CE makers and the dedicated PC-based DVRs. Jupiter sees cable and satellite providers as having some inherent advantages in the marketplace that will make it very difficult for companies like TiVo and Microsoft to compete for market share in the long run. Although due simply to an overall rise in DVR adoption the number of users using PC and standalone based units will indeed rise in the years ahead, their market share of what is expected to be a 55 million user market in 2009 will not. Expect standalone makers like TiVo to lose the most market share.

Houston, We’ve Got a Problem

Jupiter distills the problems for PC and standalone device makers down to a fairly succinct point. “PC and standalone DVR technology has failed to make a significant impression on the marketplace, due to complexity of message, lack of information, and contextual value features.”

I would argue that it is more than just the marketing message but also would encompass real and actual high prices, real and actual complexity, and the inability to address the economic sensitivities and simplicity needs of the low end and the advanced feature needs (like HDTV) of the high end.

According to Jupiter there are some pretty significant hurdles for standalone CE units and PC based media center PCs to achieve significant mass adoption. Some of these might seem pretty obvious.

1. They are too expensive.

The value proposition — here TiVo and Microsoft have an immense hurdle. Why would I want to buy a Media Center PC or a TiVo and pay all that upfront money (and in TiVo’s case an additional monthly fee) when I can just rent it from my cable or satellite provider?

Although many of us who own these standalone units or PCs could rattle off about 100 different ways that they are superior to the crappy cable or satellite freebie offerings, convincing the uninitiated of this fact is a tremendous challenge. Quite simply, the average consumer today does not see a significant difference between the cheap freebie cable PVR and a Media Center PC or a TiVo and even where they might, it’s not enough of a difference to overcome the cost objection. And this indeed is a tragedy of sorts.

As Jupiter puts it, “by accepting DVR service from a cable or satellite provider, consumers are missing out on the functionality of the standalone and PC-based DVR. These devices offer complete home entertainment solutions, while cable and satellite providers offer less robust DVR functionality with little room to expand hard drive capacity.”

2. They are too complicated.

Although I think that this is less of a problem for TiVo, it is a significant problem for Microsoft. And it’s not just that the marketing message doesn’t stress the simplicity, the simplicity quite simply isn’t there.

“Setting Windows Media Center PC requires a similar level of effort, requiring the same attention to detail as when setting up a new PC… The prospect of crashes and system lockups add a level of unnecessary complexity to watching TV on the PC. Consumers have come to expect a TV that is crash-free… The uptake of PC-based DVR suffers both from consumer fear of prospective operational errors, as well as uninformed consumers.”

Although Microsoft may have the simplicity thing down with their Xbox, it is not there yet with the Media Center PC.

This indeed will be a hurdle to overcome and for this I blame Microsoft. I purchased my first Media Center PC back in 2002 and although it is a much better experience today than then, there is still way too much that goes wrong.

What do I mean? The product supposedly can burn your tv shows to a DVD. Can mine? No. Apparently I need an encoder that HP won’t give me.

The Windows Media Player library is deathly slow with
a large library – a tremendously frustrating experience.

When I’m playing my pictures and listening to music at the same time frequently the music stops and stutters.

Earlier this morning I downloaded via Windows Update a new NVidia driver and when I rebooted my PC the only thing that I got was a black screen when I loaded up Media Center. I had to do a system restore to get my Media Center back.

To compound the situation Microsoft will not take support responsibility for their new software. Rather they put the support burden back on the OEMs who offer horrifically terrible and terribly horrific technical and aftermarket support. Again, here I do blame Microsoft for adding to their own message of complexity.

Microsoft should realize that an investment in providing a positive experience is essential and that proper after market support is critical to building a grass roots acceptance and that only then can a message of simplicity be effectively marketed and communicated.

So What’s a Girl to Do About it?

Gartenberg and his team accurately identify the cost and complexity issues as hurdles for the PC makers and standalone box makers to overcome. So what needs to be done?

According to Jupiter there are three things that PC makers and standalone box makers must do to compete.

1. Their marketing message must clearly outline the benefits, features and usability over devices and services offered by cable and satellite competitors.

2. Pricing must be low enough to compete with cable and satellite service, but reflect the unique qualities of the service

3. The market must be addressed by demographics and psychographics.

In response to item number one Jupiter clearly feels that product feature promotion must be addressed by more than word of mouth. A strong clear marketing plan must be pursued. “JupiterResearch cautions standalone and PC-based DVR vendors to avoid using customers as the only means of communicating contextual device functionality to potential customers. Expanding consumer knowledge of DVR to a wider market is vital to the survival and success of standalone and PC-based DVR products. Consumers must experience DVR features in order to understand their value, making product demonstrations key to market growth.”

While I would agree that a strong marketing message must be crafted and promoted I do not think that Microsoft should spend the money until they first get their house in order with regards to product complexity and support. Microsoft needs to seriously address the remaining problems with their Media Center software and even more significantly needs to address the black hole problem that is OEM tech support. Once these problems are addressed then Microsoft should use the testimonials of customers as a way to market the product.

Beyond testimonial marketing though how should Microsoft market their product?

In my opinion, Microsoft and Intel may have recently wasted about $20 million last year with their “digital joy” centers designed for hands on interaction with Media Center PCs. What should they be doing instead? Well, first they should be better training the salespeople in places like Best Buy and CompUSA. It is appalling how little Media Center is pushed in places like these. A colleague of mine who once worked for Good Guys explained to me that the reason why their store sold so many more TiVos than Replay DVRs was that TiVo came in and trained them on their product. If Microsoft is training people it certainly doesn’t show to me. I typically go by the Media Center PCs whenever I visit and am lucky to even get someone to talk to.

Microsoft should train employees at the point of sale on the Media Center PC as well as have quality control professionals mystery shop retailers to ensure that their product is being displayed and pushed by store employees. Microsoft could create contests and perhaps a weekend at Microsoft for the employees who sell the most.

Microsoft and TiVo should also pursue hotels and other unique high end outlets and offer their platforms for free. By offering people the opportunity to try, and by default forcing them to experience Media Center/TiVo in order to watch television, Media Center and TiVo would gain valuable exposure to affluent individuals with equally important disposable incomes.

Both companies could also consider offering their technology for in-flight business class or first class air service or through other higher end markets with a physically confined consumer.

Another thought would be for Microsoft and TiVo to both offer a free TiVo box or Media Center PC for 90 days. These could be returned at any time no questions asked. You might even wait 90 days before charging a customer’s credit card. Although there would be some expense to this program, it might address the chicken vs. egg problem where in order to know how much you love a sophisticated DVR or Media Center, you need to try a sophisticated DVR or Media Center. I suspect that as most people end up loving their DVR and that returning things in general is a pain that Microsoft and TiVo could come out ahead on this type of a program. A 90 day return policy might help persuade those individuals who are afraid of buying a standalone unit only to take it home and be disappointed. A pilot program for this might be a good place to start.

TiVo and Microsoft should also display this return policy and have their units in the television section of major electronic retailers.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

What else could Microsoft and TiVo both be doing? Well they both are already selling their software to the cable and satellite providers. TiVo currently sells their software to DirecTV and recently announced an agreement with Comcast and Microsoft sells Comcast their Foundation software which is currently running in trials in Washington State. Although these are perhaps second best platforms to actual MCE and TiVo boxes, they are significantly better platforms than the cable or satellite in house developed platforms. And although TiVo and MCE “lite” might not be as rich or full of an experience as a standalone opportunity, these partnerships at least allow Microsoft and TiVo an opportunity to hedge their bets and a way to still profit from DVR technology — albeit in a significantly smaller profit per unit way.

Additionally, Microsoft specifically has been investing money and technology into partnerships to address the potential upcoming IPTV boom. Although this remains a “to be seen” type of frontier I would suspect that here again, the IPTV supplied DVRs will have the advantage vs. the standalone DVR for IPTV.

I’ve Got the Brains, You’ve Got the Looks, Let’s Make Lots of Money

The other areas worth examining as a way for TiVo and Microsoft to compete vs. cable and satellite would include releasing their PVR technology as a software only purchase on the low end and developing cable/satellite HDTV capabilities on the high end.

The Mass Market Sale

If the cost of a TiVo or a Media Center PC is a major barrier to adoption today, one way to bring the cost down is to eliminate the middleman — yes, the dreaded OEM or the hardware expense associated with a TiVo box. TiVo and Microsoft could both offer their software on an entirely standalone basis. Although with Media Center 2005 Microsoft took a step in this direction by allowing any OEM access to their software (and by default having software show up on places like eBay or from some OEMs) they have not marketed or pushed this.

Microsoft could offer Media Center software, a cheap tv tuner card and a remote in an all in one package at places like Costco. Although the
y run the risk that under powered hardware would create a poor user experience, most PCs these days are powerful enough to run Media Center. One thing that “PC and Standalone Digital Video Recorders, Strategies to Cope with an Uncertain Market” points out is that 66% of consumers have an existing PC in their living room or den — 68% with internet access. These are prime candidates for purchasing standalone software.

By bringing the price way down and selling a software only package to consumers, Microsoft could tackle the cost issue head on (although also perhaps alienate quite a few OEMs). Similarly TiVo could offer their standalone package which would run on a PC.

TiVo also definitely needs to adopt at least an additional purchase option of no up front cost with a monthly fee and service agreement along the lines of the cell phone providers.

The High End Market

The other area to explore is the high end niche market. At present, most likely due to both legal and technical issues and especially now with the delay of the CableCARD mandate by the FCC, Microsoft and TiVo have been somewhat blocked from creating a standalone compelling cable or satellite supported HDTV offering.

The HDTV market is rapidly growing. Jupiter estimates that 8% of consumers own HDTVs today. And guess what? These HDTVs are not cheap. Surely this 8% of the market represents the higher income element of the market and this element will pay more. They are less cost sensitive and they know and have experienced the joy that is HDTV.

Microsoft and TiVo should rush as soon as they can to market their cable or satellite HDTV technology to sell to this affluent niche market. This market understands the advantage of greater storage and the limitations of the current cable freebie boxes and even more significantly have witnessed the compelling power, light and grace that is today’s HDTV broadcast. They are believers and are most likely significantly more in love with their tv now than they were pre-HDTV.

Although there are still technology problems, agreements and legal barriers for a standalone HDTV box, both TiVo and Microsoft should be working on this technology as quickly as they can.

TiVo in fact has already announced development of a standalone HDTV unit. Microsoft should also announce this but more significantly in the short run as Microsoft and TiVo develop high end models and units they should loudly and clearly articulate an easy upgrade path to HDTV. If the CableCARD is the hold up, they should promote boxes with CableCARD slots that will work for non HDTV today but promise to be fully HDTV compatible when CableCARDS are eventually released.

Is There Real Opportunity for the Standalone Market?

The most optimistic portion of “PC and Standalone Digital Video Recorders, Strategies to Cope with an Uncertain Market” was the portion that discussed the expected method of obtaining DVR service by consumers in the future. Of those that were interested in a future DVR purchase who did not own one today, a whopping 45% were unsure of how they would prefer to obtain these services. 33% articulated cable or satellite providers, 13% articulated a PC with no monthly service fee, and 8% articulated a standalone unit with monthly service fee.

45% of expected buyers are unsure. Wow. That represents a tremendous opportunity. Let’s just hope the standalone guys get it right.

Thank you again to Michael Gartenberg and JupiterResearch in giving me access to this valuable report and allowing for me to provide a lengthy personal opinion. It is this type of conversational engagement that benefits both JupiterResearch and the blogging community.