The Giant Leap in Technology, the Tivo

by Mike Shea on 15 April 2003

About two years ago I stopped watching television. I didn't kick the habit completely. Shows such as NYPD Blue, The Shield, and ER kept me coming back, but I missed more episodes than I watched. TV had become too difficult for me, or it simply didn't fit in with my two new motivational drivers: laziness and elitism. I am too smart to watch shit like "Married by America" and too lazy to find out what time and channel "Mail Call" is on.

The Tivo was the answer. I needed a device that saved me time and energy. I want to watch my own weird shows when I have the time to watch them. I don't want to channel surf and watch crap I don't like. I want to be able to watch passively while playing Everquest without killing off my group. It needed to be easy, it needed to work, it needed to be transparent.

Within 12 hours, the Tivo has become a critical component of the Mike Shea Media Empire.

The Tivo is a monumental leap ahead for two reasons:

It will completely change how people think about and interact with broadcast television.

It's fundamental purpose is ease-of-use, not technical superiority.

When you think about it, the Tivo isn't really different from a 1980s VCR with a 40 hour tape. The ability to program a VCR to tape your favorite shows is only a bit different than the Tivo. Why would we spend $300 for a box and $12 a month to give us an enhanced vcr?

Tivo makes it easy.

We have to know quite a bit about broadcast television technology in order to get it to work. We have to know what channel something is on, and at what time. Why? If I want to see Crocodile Hunter, why do I have to know that its on channel 38 at 11pm EST? Add to this that a large amount of good shows are on at strange times. Ebert and Roper, for example, are only on weekends and are constantly switching time slots. Normally you would just miss it, but no more.

The Tivo removes your need to remember times and channels. You just pick what shows you want to see. The interface gives you just enough options to do what you need with cluttering it up with overdone graphics or worthless features. The on-screen instructions were simple and easy to follow. In no time at all I was ignoring the black box and paying attention to the list of shows I've always wanted to start watching again but never had the time.

The usability of the machine is its number one selling point. The box has no buttons, displays or controls on it at all, and the remote has only the required controls to do what you want. I was able to program the remote to control my TV as well, using on-screen instructions, so the overall usability of the device was no worse than the TV itself. But the benefit was far far greater.

Like all technologies, there are some down sides to the Tivo. It is expensive. The low end player costs $280 and requires a $13 a month service charge. This is a little hard to swallow when you realize all you are paying for is an easy to use service, but for some of us, the cost is worth it. The initial sign up requires a bit of work.

If we need one standard for this kind of service, it is an electronic wallet. We need a standard way to pay for things electronically without having to use the insecure 16 digit credit card and having to constantly fill out name, address, and phone fields. It was a pain in the ass with Xbox Live and a pain in the ass with the Tivo.

If you have a complex system, the Tivo's installation may not be that seamless. I don't have a cable or a satelite box, so it is the only thing between my incoming cable line and my TV. This made life easy. A friend of mine has a digital cable box and trying to rig up the IR remote sensor so that it properly feeds the channels has been prone to errors. One of Tivo's advantages is that it doesn't screw up. If it is unreliable, it isn't a good deal. The simpler you keep your system, the better the Tivo will work.

One interesting technology of the Tivo that gets a lot of press is the profiler. This agent learns what kind of shows you like and tries to grab some other shows you may be interested in. As the back-end decision making engine gets better, you may actually see shows you weren't aware of. I asked for the Simpsons and it recommended Futurama, which worked out. But for every good show it recommended, I had five bad ones. Still, it is a way for a luddite like me to find some new shows and it is a good way to make agents smarter so that recommendations in the future get better.

There were a few articles I read that sold me on the Tivo. One article described the use of Tivo with children. One line stuck out to me and really got me thinking. The author has a child who has never known anything but TV via Tivo. He has no concept of channels or time. He had no concept of being unable to rewatch a show or watch it again later. For a parent, the Tivo is a gift from God. Another interesting article describes how Tivo will completely change the advertisement industry and thus change how TV is paid for. It is somewhat doom and gloom, but I think we will start to see a lot more product placement and eventually a streaming banner of ads at the bottom of the screen instead of full commercial interruptions.

I love black-box technology. I love devices like the teapot that lets you know if your grandmother had a stroke over the web. I love technologically complex devices with such simplicity that they immediately fall into the background of our daily lives. The cell phone is almost there except for difficult calling plans, roaming charges, and bad connectivity. The pager is a good example. It has only two buttons but allows me to be contacted anywhere in the world with either email or phone. I ranted about the Xbox and how it could be our black-box interactive entertainment system of the future if only it had a couple of good games. The Tivo is more likely to change our world than the Xbox is.

The Tivo is a perfect example of a simple black-box technology that will change how we think of TV. No longer do we have channels and times, now we have 100 streams of data coming in. All we have to do is tap into those streams, grab what we want, and discard the rest. All technology should be like the Tivo.