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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

TiVo and the Death of the VCR

DVR: The Death of the VHS

Remember when your Grandma had you come over, because the light on her VCR was blinking. That clock had to be set with scientific precision. Her "soaps" were coming on, and she had to go the market. Remember the first time she accidentally recorded over "As the World Turns"? You were the only hope she had of getting her hair dyed a lovely shade of blue, and not missing out on the overly dramatic hijinks of drastically younger people.

That all changed with the advent of the TiVo. Calling itself a "Digital Video Recorder" or DVR, the TiVo didn't need you to set the time. It would do so itself. Your Grandma didn't have to check her TV Guide, because the DVR downloaded its own program schedule. She didn't have to ask you to explain how to record something, because all she had to do was hit the little red button, and it was taken care of. No longer would she have to worry about recording over her show.

The TiVo could do even more than that, as it would automatically recommend other shows you might like based on your recording habits. You would now be able to watch and rewind live television for up to an half hour. There would be no more changing of tapes, as it would handle 30-65 hours of programming without having to delete a single hour of programming.

How does it do this? On the hardware side, it is pretty simple: There is a set of video inputs, and a set of video outputs, much like a VCR. Unlike a VCR, a hardware based video converter takes the video feeds, and converts them using the MPEG-2 standard. This is the same standard used to encode DVD's. Once the encoding takes place, it is stored digitally as a file on the hard drive, where it is made available for immediate access.

Now, things have evolved since the advent of the first TiVo. With the new demands of high-definition television, greater hard drive space has to be added, along with the ability to network multiple TiVos together, and a stack of other features. What is more interesting is what TiVo's competitors have put together.

The cable companies have put together packs that allow to rewind a channel by as much as 3 hours (provided that you left your tv on the same channel). Occasionally, I have been able to go back by as much as three hours on two different channels at the same time. The hardware community has provided software that allows you to build your own TiVo. MythTV, an offering by the open source community, goes one step forward, by allowing people to build a home media server. This means that you install the front-end client for an unlimited number of televisions, and you can access all your recorded programs from a single box.

AT&T has built a new DVR for their "Uverse" IPTV that allows you to record 4 shows at the same time, and control it from a mobile phone, or via an internet connection. They also use the much higher quality H.264 codec as their primary recording encoder.

All of these offerings have massive hard drives, and some even have ways around broadcaster imposed restrictions. "What restrictions?" you might ask. Well, there are a couple. One of the main reasons people use DVR's to begin with is the ability to fast-forward past commercials. Since all networks make money from advertising revenue, the thought of a customer skipping past ads automatically brings lost money to mind.

With that in mind, they attempted to implement an advertising campaign within TiVo that would show pop-up ads when people fast-forwarded through recorded shows. In another attempt to control how people use content, the broadcasters have implemented the broadcast flag. With the broadcast flag, they can keep you from burning your content to a disk, saving it to a hard drive, have the content expire after a week, or even keep you from recording the broadcast at all.

Currently, there is only project that refuses to recognize the broadcast flag: MythTV. This means that the Myth project believes that you have the right to do whatever you want with the signal that is coming into your home. Now, MythTV is based on Linux, as is TiVo. TiVo is also based on Linux. Linux is software that says there can be no restrictions on how it can be used, but in order to use it, it must allow the same privileges to the user. TiVo's recognition of the broadcast flag will keep them from updating their software that is available under the newest Linux licenses. They are subject to millions of dollars in lawsuits if they do. There will definitely be lawsuits soon, with broadcasters, and everyday consumers in the crosshairs.

Recording has come a long way from the day the VCR. It's easier to do, higher in quality, and more convenient to schedule. The only question now, is whether or not you will be able to watch what you have recorded as easily as you did back then.