TiVo has been setting the bar for timeshifting television (what you want, when you want it) for the better part of a decade. Its latest models, the TiVo Series 3 and TiVo HD, further refine and extend functionality to high definition TV and downloadable movies. But the future might not be so bright for TiVo, as other players such as Microsoft' Vista Media Center, Apple's Apple TV, Netflix's Roku player, and upstarts like the Vudu aim to drink their milkshake. What's a company to do? Innovate. Use the internet. Connect users together. Go beyond broadcast TV. Here's what we think TiVo needs to prioritize in their next box in order to dominate the living room for the next decade.
Most importantly, they need to embrace the internet, which includes BitTorrent. There's no sense in fighting it since people are currently using software like TED to automatically search for and download episodes of their favorite shows. It's like BitTorrent TiVo. West Coast users can even use it to download episodes shortly after it's done showing on the East Coast, giving them the ability to watch shows before broadcast and without commercials.
A source close to TiVo we spoke to says that they've looked at BitTorrent, but they need to differentiate between BitTorrent the protocol and BitTorrent in the sense that people are using it now to pirate shows. The current TiVos are designed to record two HD shows simultaneously, which leaves little power to run the fairly CPU-intensive BitTorrent protocol now. If there's a way to use it to help digital distribution in the future, TiVo will consider adding it. Here's how we think they can use the technology.
• Use BitTorrent to download shows legally. Say you somehow missed recording a show because they changed up the schedule from Tuesdays to Mondays (unlikely since TiVo auto-updates the guide, but still possible if your internet connection is down) or you forget to set a recording for a new series or you start watching a series in the middle. Why should you be punished into waiting until the entire season is out on DVD to watch this? If you're tech savvy enough, you've already been hitting the torrents and grabbing the episodes-or even seasons-you missed. Why not have TiVo centrally record a show, then let you torrent it out, complete with commercials, if you happen to miss recording it yourself? The ads keep the studios happy, and the fact that you get to watch a show keeps you happy.
• Enable peer to peer sharing. A company called NDS tried to do this in 2007 before legalities made it impossible. Picture being able to watch shows with your friends across the country at the same time, streamed from users who've already got that recording on their TiVos. Using BitTorrent will drastically reduce bandwidth costs on TiVo, but still give a very fast transfer rate to end users.
• Stream network's web content. ABC and NBC have both started getting into web video in a big way, putting their shows online for viewers to watch the next day on a browser. Extend this to a TiVo box (keeping the ads in so people who need to get paid get paid) and you're set.
• Stream your shows anywhere, including laptops, cellphones and other TiVo boxes. Yes, would essentially be a Slingbox built into a TiVo, allowing you to watch your shows on the go with your cellphones without any additional hardware. But why not have your living room TiVo networked together with the one in your bedroom? If you recorded Lost on one and Heroes on the other, you could stream it to each other without having to waste hard drive space doubly recording it.
• Download movies from every service. This is a tough one, but TiVo should expand their current Amazon Unbox movie service to include iTunes, Netflix and whatever service decides to pop up between now and doomsday. Be service agnostic and everyone will love you. DVDs don't distinguish between movies sold at Best Buy and movies sold at Circuit City.
But TiVo can't survive off of networking features alone; they need to expand the core functionality of the box as well. Here's what we're proposing.
• Auto encoding and syncing to devices. TiVoToGo is fine for grabbing shows off of your TiVo, encoding them and uploading it to your iPod when you've got lots of spare time, but if you're in a hurry, it's not nearly as convenient. A TiVo only needs all its CPU power when recording two HD shows, so they can easily use the excess cycles during idle times to automatically encode shows into a format your iPod or Zune can understand. All you have to do is simply dock your player into a USB port and choose the shows you want to carry with you.
• Messaging and communications. This ties into the peer to peer sharing feature above, but being able to have Xbox Live-like messages exchanged between your friends or even being able to chat with them while you're watching the same show (group chat!) would be phenomenal. Or if you don't want their jibber jabber during the show, just chat it up during commercials. A branded TiVo wireless keyboard and a wireless headset would be optional peripherals, or you can just hook up your own USB keyboard and USB headset.
• Ultimate file playback support. The one thing that's absolutely necessary to make the TiVo the core of the living room entertainment center is support for popular file formats. We're talking h.264, DivX, XviD, OGM, MKV, MOV, FLV, and anything else people encode their videos with. This way even users who don't have cable TV can get a TiVo and use it as a file dump for their BitTorrented shows and movies. Playing these files back easily in HD, without prior conversion, would truly make this the ultimate set top box.