The best laid plans of mice and men… After visiting TiVo on Monday, the first day of the show, I’d planned to stop back in on Tuesday – but I didn’t make it. Thursday I was committed to visiting the Sands Expo, the other main location for CES (the first being the LVCC where TiVo was), so I didn’t make it back to TiVo until the end of the day on Thursday – the last day of the show. I stuck around to gather as much intel as I could before they kicked me out so they could start breaking down their suite.
First, to step back and cover a few things I didn’t go over in my previous posts from the show. TiVo didn’t really have a lot new this year. Their only big announcement was TiVo Desktop 2.6 with web video support. And while that’s not a minor thing, it isn’t really major news like the Series3 at CES 2006 or showing off the cable software at CES 2007.
For me the web video announcement is exciting because of the infrastructure changes it is bringing more than the web video feature itself. While the web video support will be useful, the changes under the covers should have even further reaching impact on the TiVo service offering. The utilization of XMPP will likely have far reaching effects on many aspects of the system, for the better. More on that below.
They were also showing off the international DVB units for Australia and New Zealand, and almost certainly beyond, but that was more low-key, in the same way they’ve shown the Mexican S2DT and the TGC box for Taiwan and China for the past couple of years. Being low-key certainly doesn’t mean unimportant though. The DVB platform, combined with the internationalized software, may be the most important development for TiVo in years. It will give them a platform to launch TiVo in territories around the world as DVB is the dominant digital broadcast platform for most of the globe.
One thing about the DVB platform. I’d noticed recently that some of the press articles on the Australian TiVo have started referring to ‘Australia and New Zealand’. Since all of the official announcements have only mentioned Australia, I was curious about that. Well, the launch will be in Australia. But Seven Network also operates in New Zealand and they’re looking to expand, so it is expected that they will deploy TiVo in New Zealand following the Australian deployment. The the Kiwis should be getting their taste of TiVo as well.
Also, to point out the obvious, TiVo still has a service infrastructure in the UK to support the Series1 units that were sold there. Everything is in place to support new TiVo units in the UK market. The UK is one of the territories that uses DVB. TiVo is developing an international DVB platform. Put two and two together. TiVo would not confirm any plans to re-enter the UK market with the new platform when I asked, but they did say it certainly seems to make sense given the facts. I think we will probably see new DVB TiVo’s available in the UK once the Australian deployment is launched and the platform is ready.
Aside from these new items, TiVo was mainly exhibiting their existing product offerings. The OCAP software was on display, both the Comcast and the Cox systems. The Comcast software has starting rolling out in New England, of course. There have been rumors that the Cox deal is stalled, which is not the case. Cox has always planned to deploy the software approximately six months after Comcast, to give Comcast and TiVo time to work out any issues. Since Comcast delayed the launch that has also delayed the Cox launch. They may move it up a bit instead of waiting as long as originally planned, due to the delay, but there weren’t any dates set yet. And Comcast is still focused on the deployment in New England and doesn’t have any dates for deployments to other territories at this time. The OCAP software is currently running on the Motorola 34xx and 64xx platforms, but TiVo is working on getting it running on Cisco (formerly Scientific Atlanta) hardware. We can also expect it to be running on additional Motorola platforms beyond the 34xx/64xx.
There were stations demonstrating the basic features – TiVoCast, HME features like Rhapsody, etc. The advertising demo station was showing off some ‘new’ things which weren’t actually new, like the ‘billboard’ ads that put up the a static image ad when you fast forward through tagged commercials. That’s actually be around for quite a while, though I guess they’re starting to use it more these days. The only new advertising feature I can think of from 2007 is the new look for the TiVo Central Promotions, aka the Gold Star Promotions, with the embossed button look. That’s just a minor visual tweak, not really a new feature.
I did have one advertising related question for TiVo. Lately I’ve noticed that pretty much everything I watch now has a ‘Program Placement’ ad. Those are the banner-style ads that show up on the Delete now / Keep this recording screen. I noticed most of them seem to be promoting TiVoCast content, mainly shows from Next New Networks. So I was curious if NNN had purchased the spots or if it was something TiVo was doing. Turns out it is TiVo’s doing. When they don’t have a buyer for the ad slots they will run ‘internal’ ads to promote lesser used features or new additions. I think that’s a pretty smart move. I’ve run into too many TiVo owners who don’t even known TiVoCast is there, or other features like Amazon Unbox. So using the available advertising platform to self-promote is a bright idea. You’ve got the ad slots, might as well use them if someone isn’t paying for it.
I also asked a few more questions about the new web video implementation with XMPP. After my first visit something didn’t make sense to me. On the TiVo itself there will be a new TiVo Cast interface which allows you to subscribe to the ‘traditional’ TiVoCast content as well as the other web videos. The list has been compiled by TiVo basically scouring the new for video podcast feeds. When you select one of the feeds it creates a subscription which uses TiVo Desktop to transcode the program.
But when I’d looked at TiVo desktop the interface seemed to require pointing the feeds at a folder on the PC and using an external RSS client, such as iTunes. So how could selecting a feed on the TiVo schedule it in your external RSS reader, like iTunes? I couldn’t reconcile those two pieces, so I knew I must be missing something, and indeed I was. It turns out that TiVo Desktop Plus 2.6 has its own built-in RSS scheduler. So when you select one of these feeds on the TiVo it messages the server via XMPP, and the server then messages TiVo Desktop via XMPP to add the feed to its scheduler. It downloads the videos and transcodes them. When they’re ready TiVo Desktop messages the server, which messages the TiVo to tell it to grab the video using TiVoCast.
The desktop interface that I posted is only needed for video blogs not in the list. And this does require an external RSS scheduler. I suggested to TiVo that they simply add an RSS UI to TiVo Desktop. Since it has a scheduler built-in, the only thing missing is a box in the UI to enter the RSS feed instead of a folder to monitor on the machine. You could simply add the feed URL instead of the folder, a minor change to the UI. I’d like to see it since I would use it rather than another RSS scheduler, and it makes sense since all the heavy lifting is already done.
I’ve seen some people wondering about how the servers can send messages ‘in’ to the TiVo or TiVo Desktop. It works just like any IM network. TiVo Desktop and the TiVo sign into the network, so the initialization is outbound. It really is an IM network just like Jabber or Google Talk – just a secure, private version.
I was asked if the use of XMPP eliminates the use of Bonjour, which is how the TiVo and TiVo Desktop find each other today. Well, yes and no. Bonjour is still being used for the existing features such as Music & Photos, as well as TiVoToGo/TiVoToComeBack. But it is not being used for the web video feature. Instead, when TiVo Desktop has a video ready the message it sends to the server includes the PCs local IP information and everything the TiVo needs to make the connection and download the video. One change due to this is that the PC doing the transcoding needn’t be on the same subnet as the TiVo. As long as the IP it provides is reachable from the TiVo it should work.
Over time XMPP will probably be used for more and more functions. It will first be deployed with the new web video functionality. But the intention is to completely phase out the polling system currently in place and to use XMPP for all the TiVo to server messaging. XMPP will be used for standard TiVoCast and Amazon Unbox, as well as online scheduling requests.
The move to XMPP will allow TiVo to improve some of the current features. For example, online scheduling currently has a delay waiting for the TiVo to poll the server and pull down the request. So there is no ability to handle real-time conflict resolution. XMPP can change that. When you make a request the server can IM the TiVo, which can respond immediately with “OK” or “I have a conflict with X, what should I do?” So the user could decide immediately what they want to record. TiVo wouldn’t state that any of the ideas I mentioned would happen, but did admit that they certainly would make sense giving the architectural changes to the system. I got the impression that some of these changes are already in the works for future updates, or are at least being planned.
TiVo mentioned other possibilities, such as the server monitoring your recording schedule and guide data updates. If there is a change in the guide data that would impact your recordings, the server could message the TiVo to tell it to grab the new data now instead of when it is next scheduled to do so. I’m sure you can think of other situations where instant communication would be helpful.
I did have a suggestion for TiVo now that communication between the TiVo and TiVo Desktop is available via XMPP. Many of the promos that I see on the TiVo have URLs – visit this site for more info, visit this site to sign up, etc. Right now you have to remember that URL and remember to check it when you’re back to your PC. I suggested that the TiVo IM that URL to the server, which IMs it to TiVo Desktop and other opens your default browser with the page loaded, or saves the URL in a ‘TiVo Bookmarks’ tab within TiVo Desktop that collects the URLs in one neat location for checking later. Or just do both and make it used configurable if the browser should be automatically launched. I know I’d use it and check the URLs a lot more often than I do today if it were this easy.
As far as the web videos go, I asked how a site gets on the pre-populated list on the TiVo. As I said above, the current list was compiled by TiVo. Right now there isn’t a mechanism for sites to get themselves added, but TiVo expects to offer something like a URL submission page where video blogs can submit their feed for review to be added to the pre-populated list. There will certainly be some way for new feeds to be added to the defaults, it just isn’t settled on the precise form that will take.
I was also curious about the TiVoCast protocol being used for this. Would be be open to 3rd parties? Say I run a video blog and I’m willing to host the TiVo formatted video myself, can I have my server listed and run TiVoCast so TiVos can suck the video down from my server directly? Right now the answer is no. At this time TiVo isn’t planning to make the infrastructure available for sites to ‘self-publish’ TiVoCast content. Sites that want to do that should contact TiVo about joining the ‘traditional’ TiVoCast sites and being listed like they are today. This may change at some point in the future, but not at this time.
What if you’re an entrepreneur and you want to offer a ‘Transcode in the Sky’ service? You’d aggregate the RSS feeds of the video blogs, trancode them, and serve them to the TiVos so people wouldn’t have to keep their PCs on, as well as for less tech savvy users who are just too confused to deal with it. Same deal. TiVo suggested that someone looking to do that could work with them to become part of the standard TiVoCast service and be listed as an aggregated channel with the other feeds as sub channels. Similar to how PodCastTV or The NY Times work today on TiVoCast. (If you turn that idea into a business, remember me when you’re rich and famous.)
If these policies change, I got the impression it would be after H.264/MPEG-4 is enabled on the Series3 and TiVo HD. As the TiVo person I was speaking with said to me, “Do you want to be serving the MPEG-2?” Since, today, MPEG-2 is the only supported format, downloads will be fairly large and require more bandwidth. Once sites have the option of serving MPEG-4 to the newer units the costs won’t be as high for self-hosting TiVoCast content. My impression is that we’ll probably see the advanced codec support enabled later this year. The web video update already implies HD downloads will be enabled as web video supports HD video transfer to the S3 and TiVo HD. Since it uses TiVoCast, the same system used for Amazon Unbox and traditional TiVoCast, those sources should be able to support HD content as well.
I also had some interesting discussions about HME. Coincidentally, in the weeks immediately before CES, the HME Developers mailing list suddenly came to life with a number of discussions. More traffic than it had seen in months. So that got the pump primed for HME going into CES. TiVo HME development has been very limited, especially since the last stable public SDK from TiVo was 1.4 released on 10/31/2005. There was nothing else released until an experimental SDK, 1.4.1, was released on 10/3/2007. However, that’s just the public SDK. Internally HME has clearly been evolving dramatically, as evidenced by the newer HME-based applications, such as Universal Swivel Search and Rhapsody.
But the biggest example of this is the OCAP software for the cable DVRs. HME is Java-based, OCAP is Java-based. TiVo used the SDK toolkit as the basis for their HME software. TiVo told me that everything you see in the OCAP software is HME. The OCAP UI is built using their newest tool kit. That implies that a lot of work has been done, including adding video support within HME (as Comcast has video in the upper-right on the menu screens) which is one of the long standing major requests.
TiVo says some of the updates that were made internally will be released in updates to the public SDK. However, they cannot say just when that might happen or which features will be available in the public SDK. But with TiVo’s renewed focus on network content, and from what I heard at the show – much of which I can’t repeat – I think 2008 could see a re-launch of HME with an updated SDK that has more features.
As part of the discussion on the mailing list before CES I wrote a couple of long posts about how I think TiVo could improve and re-invigorate HME, and I’m planning to turn those into a post for the blog. But I’ll highlight my number one suggestion here: Publicity.
I don’t mean publicizing HME to developers, or even letting users know it is there. I mean making it easy for developers to let users know about their applications! Too many TiVo owners don’t even know about sites like Apps.tv or PlayTeeVee.com. Or major HME applications like Galleon or AudioFaucet. Let alone a lot of the smaller applications that are available.
Blogs, web forums, mailing lists, and newsgroups are not sufficient. They only reach a small percentage of TiVo owners, and usually the most geeky. There needs to be a way for John and Jane Q. Public to find out about these applications. Most HME developers complained about being unable to reach the users, which is very discouraging as a developer. No one wants to pour their energy into a project that will never reach its intended audience. Developers got disheartened and HME development fell off. Sure, it wasn’t the only reason, the stagnation of the SDK was a big part as well, but even the best SDK in the world is worthless if the resulting products can’t reach their audience.
My suggestion to TiVo is to put an Application Showcase on every broadband connected TiVo. One of the ‘permanent’ applications under Music, Photos, Programs & More, and perhaps also linked from with Showcases. Setup some basic criteria for applications to be listed, and put up a submission form on the web. I’d expect TiVo to have some requirements for applications to be listed – no adult content, some UI conventions that must be followed (such as a prominent ‘Help/Support’ link which directs the user to the application’s site and not to TiVo), etc.
When I suggested this, both on the list and at CES, the primary objection was that TiVo doesn’t want to be held responsible for the content of the applications or their support. That if the applications are listed on the TiVo for easy access that users will deluge TiVo with support requests. I say hogwash. Sure, there are always those people beyond help who will call TiVo for anything, but I believe the majority of the issue can be mitigated. The local HME functionality already has an interstitial screen the first time you activate it requiring your to acknowledge the risks and responsibility before you can use it. For the Application Showcase I would give each application some number of static screens to pitch their application to the user, not immediate access to run the application blind. After reviewing the pitch the user is presented with some kind of ‘Add this application to MPP&M’ option. If they select this option, then they get the scary interstitial screen warning them about running 3rd party apps, not giving out their passwords, etc. And that support for the application is the responsibility of the application author and not TiVo. See the aforementioned prominent support link requirement.
TiVo could further reinforce this by adding a sub-category to MPP&M and moving all 3rd party HME applications in there. Call it ‘Non-TiVo Applications’ or whatever you want, to help reinforce that when you go in there and run something the applications in there are not supported by TiVo. You could even design the screen such that that message is always visible in the menu.
To take it a paranoid step further, instead of allowing instant access to the application at the end of the pitch, it could refer the user to the URL of the website to sign up for the application. So they’d have to enter the IP manually just like today. See my above suggestion of using XMPP to pop open a browser, or at least send the URL to the desktop, which would be useful here. But I think that’s making things a little too user-unfriendly and TiVo doesn’t need to go that far. Though the URL trick would be nice for non-hosted applications the user needs to download for themselves anyway – like Galleon.
I’m not suggesting that TiVo hosts all of these applications themselves, endorses them, or anything of the sort. Just that they provide a mechanism whereby HME application creators and hawk their wares to the TiVo user base directly. That would go a long way towards providing incentive for developers to create HME applications. And with the web video addition TiVo sets some precedent. They’re listing scores of video podcasts but that doesn’t mean TiVo endorses them all or provides support if something goes flaky with the feed.
I’ll have more to say on HME once I find time to pull together a post focused on it. But I think HME still has potential to be a big deal for TiVo, especially with their new focus on network content. But TiVo needs to do something to encourage the community to work with them. Giving developers that publicity within the user base is the first, and most important, step they need to take, IMHO.
Well, I think that’s it. At least all that I can remember at the moment. I still have more materials from CES to go through that might jar something else loose regarding TiVo. I do have a couple more posts to make over the next couple of days about other things as well.