February 28, 2005
Interview with MCE Guys
Thomas Hawk has Part 1 of a 4 part series interviewing some members of the Microsoft Media Center Edition team. It's good inside look into MCE and the team.
The number one challenge of MCE according to interviewee Matt Goyer, "we need to take our HDTV support to the next level."
HDTV is the next big hurdle for DVR penetration, particularly at the retail level.
February 25, 2005
Count me an Apple/Tivo naysayer
As I have mentioned in the past, I'm a big fan of both Apple and Tivo. They both share a love of innovation and a focus on user experience. From the outside looking in, they appear to have similiar corporate cultures and a passion to deliver good quality products. If they were individuals instead of corporations, I'm sure my wife would try to play matchmaker because they make the perfect couple. Unfortunately, a corporate acquisition is not the same thing as a marriage, and while I personally wouldn't mind seeing the two merge, I can't help but point out the problems with it happening.
PVRBlog makes some great arguments in favor of a merger. It helps get Apple into the living room and it helps expand iTunes to new devices. It opens the door to opening an online video store right next to Apple's virtual music store. I think these things are compelling from Apple's point of view, and may lay creedence to the rumors that Apple is in contact with Tivo. If I were Steve Jobs, I'd have a conversation with Tivo's board as well.
Let me point out two wildcards that can change my internal equation before pointing out the flaws of the merger. One is Tivo's future product plans, the highest importance in my estimation is a HDTV DVR that can be sold as a standalone unit. The second is Tivo's patents, which I haven't spent time looking into and may very well be of high value for a suitor.
If you assume no wildcards as listed above, you can say that Tivo's assets are brand recognition, technical capability, and it's loyal customer base. Let's look at them from a critical eye and from Apple's point of view:
- Brand Recognition: Tivo has a good brand name, but in some respects, it's a victim of its own success. Tivo has become part of the common lexicon and to many people, it's a synonym for DVR. The Tivo brand may help some companies that don't have a strong consumer electronics retail brand (eg possibly Creative, LG, etc), Apple already has a strong brand name that can be used in the DVR space. As an example, I can imagine a couple going into an electronics store to buy a DVR and say, "Honey, should we buy the Apple Tivo, the Sony Tivo, or the Microsoft Tivo?" The point being, I don't think the Tivo brand has much value to Apple.
- Technical Capability: Here also, I don't see purchasing the Tivo engineering staff adding much core competency to Apple's already strong software and hardware engineering staff. I don't think hardware engineering is Tivo's strongpoint compared to software, where I think the Tivo magic of user interface really shines. If engineering capability was the entire reason to get into the DVR space, Apple would do better purchasing a software vendor like Elgato Systems which already has PVR products that run on the Apple platform and would likely come at a cheaper price.
- Customer Base: This in many ways is the crux of the argument for Apple to buy Tivo, and while I consider myself an ardent Tivo fan, there are some strings attached to the customer base. One big one is that the bulk of current customers are DirecTV customers, and (if I remember correctly) Tivo has a limited ability to modify and upgrade those DVRs. Additionally, I sound like a broken record but the market is moving towards HDTV, and without an upgrade solution, there is a significant risk that Tivo will lose those customers over time. Tivo is bleeding marketshare to cable and satellite companies which offer cheaper solutions; I don't know how Apple owning Tivo changes that dynamic in a profound way.
If Apple buying Tivo doesn't change Tivo from an unprofitable to a profitable business, you are left with an argument which is the theme of PVRBlog's post: the synergy between the two companies will open up new markets and offet any negative losses by Tivo. The question then becomes, is Tivo the best strategy to open up the new markets?
I think you could make a compelling argument that at least in regards to selling movies and music online through DVRs, Tivo can be as much a hinderance as a catalyst. If you assume the DVR market is shifting to cable and satellite operators, for Apple to be successful they need to work with these companies. Competing with a corporation rarely makes for a good partnership.
Apple could turn around and offer Tivo as a an full service DVR platform, something that Tivo has been unable to do, or they could offer the technology separately that could work under any platform? At this point, I think the full service DVR ship has sailed and cable and satellite operators have formed partnerships that work. Wouldn't building a relationship with Scientific Atlanta and Motorola, along with cableco and satco, be an easier endeavor for Apple? Without doing so, it's hard to see this service, at least via DVRs, a ubiquitous service for Apple.
As a Tivo user, I'd love to see a merger happen. As an Apple stockholder, I'm luke warm with the idea.
February 23, 2005
Apple / Tivo Rumors
PVRBlog.com has been hearing rumors that Apple is interested in acquiring Tivo, sending a mini jolt to Tivo investors.
It would be an interesting marriage, with both companies having a similiar corporate culture of innovation and a focus on user experience. That being said, I'm not sure it makes a good deal of sense from a business point of view.
The million dollar MBA question is what do the two companies combined do to the Tivo equation? If getting cable and satellite operator partnerships is the way to profits, I'm not sure Apple has the relationships and skills to alter the equation. If it's to create a boutique brand of DVR, perhaps it makes more sense, although as I mentioned a couple days ago, I can't see a boutique brand that doesn't include HDTV support, and only Tivo knows when a product like that may make it to market.
Do you need to build a file server on a shoe string budget? If you have an old PC (we're talking original Pentium old) lying around with an ethernet card, then NasLite+, the new offering from ServerElements.com, may be the best way to build a a big file server for very little money. I've used the original, free, NASLite for quite a while now, and having tried NASLite+, it is well worth the $24.95.
Both NASLite and NASLite+ seem to do the impossible of reading big new drives that weren't originally supported in the hardware. The software bypasses the computer's bios and reads the drives directly, making it easy to build up to a terrabyte server on that antique sitting in the corner of your office. NASLite and NASLite+ contain both operating system and server software, so you basically insert the CD (for NASLite+) or floppy (NASlite), reboot and the PC magically turns into a dedicated, monitor-optional, file server.
NASLite+ appears to work with any old PC (486 DX or higher) with an IDE interface, any old graphics card, an ethernet card, a CDROM and a working floppy drive. Typically that means you can connect up to 3 hard drives to it (all four if your PC Bios can boot to another interface like SCSI, FIREWIRE, or USB). It also supports most popular 10Mbit, 100Mbit, and GigaBit ethernet cards, so it can keep up with the speed of your home network. For building a big file server with an old PC that already has these components, it's as simple as installing a couple of big IDE hard drives.
NASLite+ is well worth the upgrade price in my opinion. The original NASLite took some finagling to create the floppy properly on a Windows machine and made you choose one of a variety of server protocols (SMB, NFS, FTP, HTTP) and network card speeds (Gigabit, 100Mbit, 10Mbit). Install is a snap with NASLite+ and it runs all four protocols simultaneously. An even more important reason to upgrade to NASLite+ is the speed, literally 4X faster on my home network.
Upgrading from NASLite to NASLite+ was trivial, and more importantly, all my data remained intact. I ran into a slight glitch with a new unformatted drive that I added to the PC, but a new version of NASLite+ (v1.1) has already been released that fixes the problem in its tracks. To set up a NASLite+ server software, you simply create a CD from the downloaded ISO, boot your server with the CD, follow a few quick configuration screens to setup an administration password, the IP settings, configure each disk, and within a few minutes the system is up and running.
Once NASLite+ has been set up, you can disconnect the monitor from your file server and connect and manage the server remotely. Via telnet, you can access all the administration functions from another computer. Additionally, it has a nice web interface built in, so you can check on the server using a web browser. To aid running the server without a monitor, NASLite+ also plays a particular beep sequence through the built-in PC speaker during boot if everything is functioning normally, and a more ominous beep if something is amiss (NASLite will also monitor each drive if they support S.M.A.R.T).
NASLite has been rock solid in my basement, running for months at a time without having to reboot. In the three weeks I've tried NASLite+, it's been just as dependable. As host to our family's DVR, MP3, and video library, it has gotten a pretty good workout, and I'm happy to report no wife annoyance, the true test for a married geekster like myself.
Like all products, there are a couple of features that could add value to NASLite+ in the future. For instance, there are virtually no security features included like password protection, so while it works fine for the home environment, you might not want to archive your corporate financial data on a NASLite+ server. Using the SMB protocol (for Windows users), there is a 4Gig individual file size limit, which one can bump into if you are saving large video files. It would be nice to support additional IDE and Fireware cards, allowing someone to add more than the four original IDE drives for storage (you can boot off of a firewire device, but you cannot use a firewire drive as part of your storage). If you don't have any another bios boot options (eg a SCSI or USB bootable bios), your server can only serve up three hard drives with the CDROM booting NASLite+.
I raved about the original NASLite last fall, but NASLite+, with its superior performance and easier setup, is an even better product. If you have an old computer sitting around doing nothing, it's the most economical way to build a home file server and there's a certain satisfaction in making that trusty old Pentium PC useful again after years of neglect.
February 22, 2005
JavaHMO 2.3 Released
Via TivoBlog.com (Congrats on the birth of your son!), a new version of JavaHMO has just been released that supports TivoToGo. An interesting new feature of the product is the ability to automatically download programming based on user selected criteria. That's certainly a big help for someone like me that likes to archive some shows that I don't have time to watch right away.
By the way, the next generation product from the makers of JavaHMO is Galleon, so you'll want to update your bookmarks to stay up to date.
Broadcast Flag Opponents
Via TVPredictions.com, there is a good article in the International Hearld Tribune that discusses the upcoming broadcast flag. It's a good overview and discusses some of the arguments of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group in Washington. Their argument in this debate:
"This is about whether the FCC is going to become the Federal Computer Commission and the Federal Copyright Commission," said Gigi Sohn, the co-founder and president of Public Knowledge. "The FCC does not have the power to tell technology manufacturers how to build their machines"
According to the article:
Staunch opponents of the broadcast flag rule see it as an unprecedented regulatory sledgehammer.
In only a few limited circumstances has the commission issued design regulations for the manufacture of consumer electronics - and in those cases, only after a statutory mandate from Congress.
Copyright law has always been about the balance of protecting copyright holders versus innovation and the greater good. I'm all for keeping an incentive for artists to make creative works, but I question whether putting in the broadcast flag, which undoubtedly stifles innovation of valid and legal copyright uses such as DVRs and VCRS, is helping keep the balance intact. At a minimum, you'd at least like to see our elective representatives weigh in on this one.
February 21, 2005
Om Malik and PVRBlog, along with Phillip Swann, have an interesting debate on how to save Tivo. Om Malik's approach is to give away 2M units to build a userbase and create a premium brand. PVRBlog makes the cogent point that Tivo doesn't have the cash flow required.
I think they both make valid points, and undoubtedly, Tivo has a premium user interface. However, I don't see Tivo being a premium brand over the next year without better support for HDTV, which by all indications, is where the market is moving.
For all the talk of Tivo being a technology company, they are way behind the curve when it comes to HDTV, and as I've questioned in the past, who will want a standard Tivo controlling their television experience if they own a HDTV-ready television? To be fair, they do have a unit that works for their DirecTV subscribers, but as others have said, that relationship is on shaky ground at best.
Compressing analog HDTV streams in real-time is still cost prohibitive, but there are still two technologies that could be used in the interim. The first is building a unit with an extra Over-The-Air HDTV capture card, which isn't ideal, but gets a foot in the HDTV door (the fact that Tivo doesn't have a standalone DVR with two capture cards has always been a real head scratcher for me, but that's another topic). The longer term technology is Cable Card, which eliminates the set-top box altogether.
Without a good HDTV strategy, it's days as an independent entity are limited. Without some success partnering or building next generation products quickly, Tivo has no HDTV strategy.
We're back in town and ready to get back to work on the blog. I want to say a personal thank you for all the kind emails that were sent over the last couple weeks. It was very much appreciated. Thank you.
February 15, 2005
Return to Normal this Weekend
Posting will return to normal this weekend. Sorry for the continued delays and lack of posting.
February 04, 2005
Unfortunately, we've had an unexpected death in our family so I'll be traveling over the next 4 or 5 days. As would be expected, posting will be light during the interim.
February 03, 2005
Thomas Hawk blogging from eHomeUpgrade, describes his wishlist for what he'd like to see in MCE moving forward. He's got a lot of interesting ideas, trying to move MCE from DVR into home convergence central.
While I may have to wait a while for MCE to walk the dog at regular intervals, I'd add home security webcams to the package. When I travel and my wife hears a noise in the middle of the night, it would be a lot better for her to flip through the cameras on our bedroom television as opposed to walking around the house with a baseball bat. Add a secure internet connection, and it would also be handy during vacations to check to see if the house burned down from an internet cafe on some beach somewhere.
While I was away, Tivo released a new SDK targeted at letting developers create new functionality on the Tivo. According to everything I've read, it's a big step forward from the original SDK release with the Tivo Desktop/Home Media Option.