TiVo’s Next Move

TiVo's 3.0 operating system began quietly rolling out earlier this week, and among the improvements is the ability to load schedule data via both cable and ethernet. While it appears this feature is simply a way to streamline the unit, and get rid of the requirement for a phone line (I had to install a new phone jack just to accomodate the TiVo when I installed it), I think there's a bigger reason why TiVo is looking for alternate data delivery: TiVo wants to become a distribution network, and even at 3am, sending data through the straw of phone line is no match for the wide pipe of broadband.
There are a lot of TiVos in the world now, and people are getting used to their different view of media content. Who could have predicted that people would flock to a device that only keeps programming for a brief period of time? VCR tapes can last for years, holding baby's first steps as well as last night's syndicated Simpsons rerun. TiVo simply embraced the transient nature of most television programming, and filled that gap. Although their easy software and no-brainer recording system did a lot to help their success, VCRs have had several similar automatic timer setting features, and additonal hardware (like VCR Plus barcode scanners) for years, but it never really caught on. I think the big brains at TiVo realized this and also realized there's no need to commit episodes of almost any TV show to a tape that lasts ten years when you'll delete it the next day, after watching it once.
Dust in the wind
This embracing of the temporal nature of things previously thought of as permanent or semi-permanent is key. Ten years ago, who could have predicted that people would listen to music through their computers with files that were regularly deleted, added to, and/or erased en masse? I buy CDs to simply rip and forget about in storage. I've lost tens of gigabytes of music to hard drive failures, and it's not the end of the world. The storage on my Rio is regularly formatted, changed out, then formatted again. In regards to media content, consumers are buring the candle at both ends, so to speak, by constantly churning through television shows, music, and movies. As a hyperconsumer of media with a digital hub at the center of my life, I want new, new, new stuff to watch and hear and I want it now, now now.
The same way I treat a single episode of the Simpsons, I can also treat movies. A single episode of the Simpsons requires a lot of work and money, but it's still going to be deleted five minutes after I've seen it, even if I know it is something a team of writers worked months creating a storyline for, something the studio paid hundreds of thousands to produce, and something that took a team of overseas animators six months to create. Movies require more time and more money to produce, but a good lot of them are fluff pieces I wouldn't want to have in permanent storage, but still provide entertainment value.
The new TiVo features
Imagine the thousands of TiVo units are all on some sort of broadband connection, getting data through a fat cable line or a DSL-powered ethernet port. Now imagine them becoming a real distribution network, sending me the latest hollywood films for a few bucks. The satellite TV (including DSS) and cable TV industries have all realized that pay-per-view is a goldmine for them, and it's only a matter of time before TiVo embraces this. Imagine paying two or three bucks directly to TiVo to see the movies you wouldn't want to fork $20 over for the DVD, the movies that have interesting enough previews, but aren't anything you'd go directly to the theater to see. These are the same movies you likely rent if you have a VCR and a Blockbuster Video nearby, and TiVo stands a good chance of replacing them, and saving you a trip to the store. In my DVD collection, I have the Godfather box set, I've got every Coen brothers release, and I have Criterion releases of every one of my favorites they offer, but I'd never own Charlies Angels, Zoolander, or Shallow Hal. I wouldn't bat an eye, however, to pay a buck or two to see those titles show up in my TiVo's Now Showing list.

…from my couch, I could pay a few bucks directly to TiVo for instant, ephemeral entertainment

I don't know about you, but I love the simplicity and ease-of-use of all things TiVo, and I could easily imagine how this new type of content delivery would seamlessly slip into my recorder. TiVo already has my credit card info, as I pay them ten bucks a month for the program data, and they already know what types of TV shows I like, so it's not too much of a stretch to think of how a new system would work. Imagine setting aside 10% of your TiVo's storage to keeping 2 or 3 suggested movies ready to play (this would be much less noticable in the new 60 hour units), then selecting them from your Now Playing list, operating some sort of keystroke (like three thumbs up, then select) to confirm you want to pay for it, then watching the movie instantly. No need to schlep down to the Blockbuster and fork three bucks over to the Viacom empire when from my couch, I could pay a few bucks directly to TiVo for instant, ephemeral entertainment. TiVo wouldn't have to maintain a 24/7 television channel, they'd simply be selling premium content direct to the customer on demand.
While their competitors like SonicBlue enable a napster-like app on every RePlay hard drive and fight the numerous court battles to let their customers "steal" content, TiVo could instead be making a profit on every copy of a movie watched by their users by following a proven profit model that has been working for over ten years. The sad truth of the P2P revolution is that people want to pay creators for their content, but it's never been easy or possible. TiVo is the king of ease-of-use, and could make both things possible in their media distribution network.
The bottom line
Providing content the customer wants, in a quick and easy fashion is TiVo's forte, and it'd be nice to see TiVo make a profit and stick around. The increasingly hermit-ized, couch potato nation loves TiVo and loves movies, and would be a goldmine for TiVo if they simply put the two together. And like every episode of handcrafted Simpsons brilliance, I'd send those movies whose writers worked for months, whose budgets ran well into the millions, and whose actors worked on for six months, straight to /dev/null/ and the digital ether five minutes after finishing them.