A conversation with a Tivo product manager

I attended the Digital Life expo in NYC this weekend, and spent some time talking to some people from Tivo. One of the people I spoke to was a product manager there, and he told me some interesting stuff, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Most of my questions and concerns were related to Tivo support for Mac, and the various forms of DRM on the Tivo that have been annoying everyone so much lately. I was excited by the opportunity to speak directly to some Tivo reps, because I have been getting increasingly frustrated with the closed nature of the Tivo platform, so much so that the other day I picked up a TV tuner/MPEG4-based encoder to use with my Mac as an alternative to the Tivo.

My first conversation was with a woman from Tivo’s marketing department. I told her I was concerned that Tivo was favoring the media companies over its own customers. I told her I just wanted a way to watch my Tivo content, whether it was on the Tivo, my Mac, my Windows machine, or my Linux box. I said something like “I’m not looking to distribute these files to the world or do something unethical, I just want to have control over my own files.” She said she understood how I felt, and that Tivo’s lawyers were working all the time to give me as many features as possible. She painted Tivo as “the little guy” battling all these gigantic media companies. It was a little surprising to me that Tivo still saw itself this way, since they are the leader in the PVR market, and I would think that at this point, had they played their cards right, they would have had more sway with the media companies than they are claiming to. She also spoke generally about various Tivo initiatives — she didn’t describe any specific features, but just said that they were working on a bunch of stuff — in anticipation of “next year.” It’s hard to replicate here, but the gist of what she was saying was that they are working on some kind of next-gen Tivo that will get everyone excited about them again. Based on what someone else told me later (see below), I’m guessing this is the HD Tivo with some other stuff thrown in.

I had some specific questions about Mac support for TivoToGo, the function that allows you to transfer Tivo content to your computer or portable media player. She didn’t know much about that, so she referred me to a product manager (who I don’t want to identify by name here because I didn’t explicitly tell him I was going to make our conversation public). But this guy was busy, so she grabbed another guy named Gary, who I will name because he was such an unhelpful jerk.

She introduced me to Gary and told him I had a question about Mac support for TivoToGo. He said, “Ok, what’s the question?” I said, “There’s no Mac support for TivoToGo.” And he says, all smart-alecky and dismissively, “Ok…That’s a statement.” (As in, that’s a “statement,” not a “question.”) Way to go, guy. Insult your customer and quibble over semantics while the customer is looking for one last reason to keep using (and paying for) your service. I don’t have any patience for this sort of bullshit, so I gave him a “Give me a break” look and walked off without saying a word, pretty much planning to cancel my Tivo service when I got home.

After walking around a bit and talking to the rep from Plextor who was showing off their ConvertX tuner/encoder, I decided to see if I could catch that Tivo product manager who I was unable to speak to earlier, just to give old Tivo one last chance at winning back my $13/month or whatever it is.

I’m not sure he did that, but he was very polite and very informative. This is what he told me:

Mac support for TivoToGo. They are working on it right now, and are hoping to ship something in the first quarter of 2006. He was reluctant to give me even that vague date, because the ship date could slip and he didn’t want to be held to that prediction yet. Fair enough.

I asked him what the specific problem was that needed to be solved for Mac support. He said that Apple’s implementation of MPEG2 in Quicktime is incompatible with Tivo’s implementation of MPEG2. He’s said he’s put in a ton of calls to Apple in the last year asking them to “fix” it, but he was told they “don’t have time” and so have never gotten around to it. He said that his engineers thought they knew how to fix the issue, but Apple wasn’t interested in committing the resources to it. Apple also told him they are re-engineering Quicktime and are planning to release a new version next year, and that Tivo should just wait for that. He seemed genuinely frustrated by the whole thing. I don’t know much about video codecs, but later I was wondering whether Tivo couldn’t just offer some other MPEG2 codec with Tivo Desktop that would enable TivoToGo. Would that be possible? Sorry if that’s a stupid question.

Despite the obstacle of the MPEG2 incompatibilities, he said I would be very happy with the Mac version of Tivo Desktop/TivoToGo that they are working on.

Tivo Desktop on Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger). Officially speaking, Tivo Desktop does not run on Tiger. The website clearly states this. But I told him the latest update to the Mac OS, 10.4.2, will work with Tivo Desktop and allow you to serve music and photos to your Tivo from your Mac. The Tivo Desktop installer will give you an error at the end of the installation process, but it will actually work. Apparently, this was not the case with 10.4 and 10.4.1, due to what he said was a problem with Rendezvous/Bonjour. He seemed dimly aware of the 10.4.2 situation, like I was reminding him of something he had learned in passing. I suggested to him that maybe Tivo’s website could be updated to reflect that it works in 10.4.2. He emailed himself from his Treo(?) to remind him to get the website changed. It seems likely that the fact that the installer gives you an error despite a successful installation might ultimately dissuade him from doing this, but hopefully they will find a way to clearly communicate the reality of the situation to their users who (like me) kept checking the site to see whether they have released a Tiger-compatible version yet.

TivoToGo support for DRM. We discussed the notorious incident in which an episode of The Simpsons was flagged as “protected” on some Tivos. You could tell just talking about the matter was giving heartburn to him and the PR rep who was eating her salad right next to us during this part of the conversation. She started laughing when I brought it up, and I wasn’t sure why, until the guy explained that she was the one who had to take all the flack over this issue. He described it as a “bug,” but she preferred the term that I offered: “defect.” More semantics, but whatever. According to these guys, Tivo is sticking with the party line that this “defect” in a certain chip in a certain subset of Tivos had misinterpreted noise in the signal as a setting of the flag. They were both very careful in their word choice as they explained this to me. Since this defect is so rare, they said, it never came up in testing. She also said that had it been a lesser-watched program, probably no one would have caught it. I’m not evaluating the veracity of what they’re saying. I’m just telling you what they told me.

So this naturally led me to ask whether Tivo would prevent users from using TivoToGo for certain non-premium programming. He didn’t answer my question directly, really, but said that “any program that is protected by Macrovision” would be blocked from TivoToGo’s functionality (and presumably would also place other limitations on the file, such as controlling the “Keep until…” setting). Terrific. As a friend of mine once said when this whole Macrovision thing came up, I can’t wait to record something on a Saturday, go on vacation, and come back 8 days later only to find out that Tivo has deleted my show before I ever got a chance to watch it. “Keep Until…Media company’s needs trump yours.”

Tivo support for HD and cable card. Right before I talked to this guy, he was talking to some potential customers about Tivo’s HD support. I hope this is already public knowledge, because I don’t want him to get in trouble: he said that next year Tivo will be introducing an HD-capable DVR that is not tied to DirecTV or any other programming service. He mentioned in passing that it will support cable card. Cool.

But. What I want to do is watch my shows on my Mac, PC, or Linux box, and archive these to DVD without having to deal with DRM or corporate-approved burning software and so on. It doesn’t seem like Tivo is moving in this direction. So as much as I appreciate the Tivo folks sharing all this stuff with me, I think I am going to wean myself off of Tivo and see how things go with the more open PVR solutions.

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