After 10 years, I'm done waiting for TiVo

I can't remember the last time I watched TV without TiVo. But the time has finally come. I gave up on TiVo when TiVo gave up on me.

The last straw broke last month, when, after a DSL outage, I could no longer connect to the TiVo service.

I got the dreaded N17 error message that says, "Failed while negotiating." The only support guidance TiVo offers is (I'm not joking) to unplug the TiVo and plug it back in. Nothing helped. I trolled forums, restarted my modem, changed my router DNS settings, rebooted over and over, even switched to another TiVo, and connected to a Sprint Overdrive, just to troubleshoot and get guide info. I just couldn't get it working. I tweeted TiVo for help: no response. And every time I called tech support, they told me they only had one solution for the problem: just keep restarting that TiVo.

So, after 10 good years together, I told TiVo goodbye. I had AT&T Uverse installed this week. I'm using the Uverse DVR and while it lacks certain TiVo amenities (like the ability to schedule a recurring manual recording, apparently), it's easy to use, the remote is nice, and actually, its tabbed menu structure makes it easier to navigate than TiVo's stacked navigation scheme.

But this breakup didn't have to happen. I'll never love a DVR like I loved my TiVo, but you can only beg someone to love you back for so long before it's time to move on. It wasn't just that TiVo couldn't fix my N17 error (and couldn't even try). It's that I think TiVo gave up years ago, and not just on me.

This week, Comcast and TiVo announced that their six-year flirtation with putting TiVo software on Comcast set-top boxes is officially over. Comcast will instead offer its XFinity on-demand library to TiVo Premiere boxes.

Now, that's great news for Premiere owners. They finally get access to Comcast's impressive VOD library--the one thing they were losing by sticking with TiVo and CableCARD instead of the stock Comcast box. Well, the VOD library and the fun of hurling the Comcast DVR remote through various windows in a frustrated rage. But if you look a little closer, it's bad news for TiVo overall.

For one thing, TiVo gets VOD, but the firehose of potential new Comcast customers squeezes back down to the same old trickle it ever was. TiVo's share of the DVR market is small and shrinking--it lost nearly half its subscribers from 2007 to 2009, and had less than 3 million subs in October 2009. By contrast, the subscription-free Roku, which offers many of the same Web video features of the TiVo with no monthly fee, has sold 1 million boxes and just expanded into Best Buy.

Then there's the question of who would buy a TiVo. As I mentioned, Roku, game consoles, and other set-top boxes are compelling offers for delivering Netflix, Pandora, and other Web content. Plus, the TiVo Premiere is, as many have pointed out, a pretty half-baked effort, and a very incremental upgrade over the TiVo HD. Still. A full year after its launch, its incomplete HD UI has yet to be upgraded, and promised firmware updates delivering hoped-for DLNA support and the enabling of the box's second processor core have yet to appear. (To be fair, it did get multi-room viewing and Pandora.)

Meanwhile, the Premiere still has no built-in wireless, only two tuners, and the category-killing QWERTY remote is still an $80 add-on. And with DVRs like the Uverse box starting to deliver a decent UI, TiVo's one advantage--one which hasn't changed significantly in these past 10 years--may be slipping away. And TiVo isn't helping its cause with an utter lack of communication (will DLNA support ever appear? Hello?) and an increasingly lackluster approach to customer relations.

As TiVo's sinking subscriber numbers show, CableCARD and a $300 standalone set-top box is a hard sell, especially when it comes saddled with an additional monthly fee. TiVo's attempts to subsidize the cost of the box take the sting out of the initial outlay, but $20 a month is a tough pill to swallow when cable costs easily creep into the hundreds of dollars. TiVo's only saving grace is the same as it ever was: to become the de facto set-top box for the cable and satellite operators. This boutique shop has run out of customers.

The Comcast deal may prove to have been a life or death moment for TiVo, but it had other chances at salvation. After all, what in the world happened with the DirecTV TiVo? These two companies announced a deal three years ago, CEO Tom Rogers looked me in the eye and promised a DirecTV TiVo by the end of 2010, and yet, the latest reports peg it to, maybe, the end of 2011. Trust me: don't count on it.

I can't imagine another company, other than maybe Apple, with enough customer goodwill to tolerate three, four, and five year delays on promised products. It's a testament to the real love people had for their TiVos--myself included--that the company has survived at all. But it's an unacceptable way to treat your customers.

And sure, maybe TiVo's patent licensing side business will give it enough of a war chest to fix the Premiere, put out an innovative new box, and get things moving again. Once again, though: I wouldn't count on it. After all, Dish's one-time $500 million payment to TiVo just means Dish gets to keep delivering Dish set-top boxes to its customers. It doesn't buy TiVo a single new subscriber, and I can't imagine what else could. It breaks my heart to say it, but TiVo, I've lost the faith. I just can't wait anymore.

 

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