July 14, 2024

Why Hasn't TiVo Improved?

The name TiVo was once synonymous with an entire product category, Digital Video Recorders. Now the vultures are starting to circle above TiVo, according to a New York Times story by Saul Hansell. What went wrong?

The answer is obvious: TiVo chose to cozy up to the TV networks rather than to its customers.

When my family bought a TiVo, it was a cutting-edge product (the TiVo, not the family; but come to think of it, the family was pretty cool too), delivering a customer experience that was hard to find elsewhere. Since then, eight years have passed – an eternity in the electronics business – and TiVo is still selling essentially the same product. Sure, they have added a few bells and whistles, but nothing that made us want to run out and buy a new box.

TiVo made a decision, early on, to cozy up to the TV networks, to stay within their comfort zone. But the networks’ comfort zone is awfully confining. ReplayTV took a different path, seizing the technological lead with new features that angered the networks; and the networks brought a lawsuit that ReplayTV couldn’t afford to defend. At the time, TiVo execs probably chuckled and congratulated themselves for their caution.

Now the time has come for TiVo to pay for its timidity. Its technology is no longer distinctive, and the rising tide of DRM threatens to cut TiVo’s products out of the TV delivery pipeline. (Remember, DRM is just another name for deliberate incompatibility.) It’s not clear what the company will have to offer future customers.

Which brings us to the key paragraph in the New York Times story:

Last week, TiVo announced that Mr. Ramsay was stepping down as chief executive but would remain as chairman. He said the change was his idea and had been under discussion for months. Several board members and others close to the board confirm that. But they also said that the board hoped to hire someone with less of Mr. Ramsay’s fierce belief in the power of TiVo’s technology. They said they preferred someone with an ability to repair TiVo’s relations with the big cable companies.

[italics added] As in so many organizations, TiVo’s response to crisis is to do more of what got them in trouble, rather than returning to the strategy that made them successful in the first place.

This is bad news for TiVo, which desperately needs new, distinctive technology if it wants to survive. It’s bad news for customers too.

UPDATE (2:00 PM): Matt Haughey has a nice response over at PVRblog.