Last month, I bought a

Last month, I bought a Directivo system, and once installed, was astonished at the quality of the whole experience. With hundreds of new channels to glean content from, our tivo quickly filled to capacity, and for the life of me I couldn’t locate the option to reduce the image recording quality (it appears that Directivo units don’t let you choose the quality, instead selecting it for you based on the amount of free space). The first few programs came out looking like DVDs, and eventually programs were only being held for a couple days before automatically being deleted.

I found a bustling tivo hacker community online, especially focused specifically on the directv-enabled tivo units (my guess is there is more of an economic incentive to hack a satellite system that offers hundreds of dollars in content a month). Looking through the various how-to articles, this one appeared to cover all the units and all the bases well. I went down to my local Fry’s and searched for an older 5400 rpm drive. I couldn’t locate one for under $100, and I noticed on the instructions that using a win2k or xp machine might be a problem. I don’t have a cd-burner handy, and my knowledge of linux is limited to installing and configuring web applications, so I knew a tivo upgrade would be at least a full day of work trying to get things to work, with the possibility of messing up my tivo and wasting a weekend on it.

Then I noticed the guy offered prepared hard drives for sale, ready to drop into any tivo unit. It sounded too good to be true, so I weighed my options: risk a $100 hard drive a full day tinkering that might not work against $195 for a drop-in option. With the world cup games coming (2 hrs per game would take up lots of space), and a vacation planned (we’d be gone while tivo erased games), I knew the upgrade would need to happen soon, so I plunked down the cash and sent away for the ready-to-use hard drive.

The package soon showed up as promised. A hard drive that had been “blessed” in a tivo system, ready to go, a backup version of the OS in case I needed to restore my tivo, and a single sheet of photos and instructions. I popped off the top of my tivo, unplugged the wires as instructed and mounted the second drive. I swapped a master/slave switch on the original drive and it was ready to roll. After powering up, everything came back perfectly normal; all my previous settings were intact, with the new capacity properly showing up. In all, it was maybe ten minutes from unpacking to powering up my tivo, and it’s worked flawlessly since. We have a disgusting amount of programming ready to watch at all times now, and everything looks super sharp.

The whole experience reminded me of the old software marketing book “Crossing the Chasm.” In it, the authors talk about taking products that sell well for the early adopter, uber-geeks and positioning them for the mainstream, less technical audience. Few companies do this well, with the AOL service being one of the best examples of geeky product sold successfully to the masses.

Among the geekiest of things out there (linux/BSD/OSX, guerilla wireless systems, tivo hacking), even somewhat advanced geeks are left out sometimes. I know a lot of geeky friends that code web applications, configure web servers, and build home networks, but don’t have the knowledge or time to take part in these bleeding edge technologies, and many of the people behind them aren’t interested in making them accessible to even technical users. Most open source software has poor documentation. OS X tries to take all the pain out of unix, but falls short at times, requiring users to go to the command line fairly regularly with memorized commands. The nocat guys I spoke to at the O’Reilly conference had their own tiny home-brewed base stations for wireless, with linux running on a compact flash card and robust web-based adminstration of the network, but they don’t sell these base units, and ask that you attend their meetings and build your own.

My guess is that there’s a large enough market of highly technical, but not uber-geeks out there worth selling to, and things like plug-and-play tivo hard drives are an example of the perfect product for them. As the mainstream grows, so to does the numbers of advanced users that “graduate” from the mainstream. Anyone beyond your basic AOL user could install the tivo upgrade drives, and my prediction is the guy sells a ton of them.