TiVo hacks flourish

Electrocution, voided warranty, the wrath of Hollywood--so what? Nothing seems to hinder the TiVo hacker.

Five years after TiVo introduced the rewind and fast-forward buttons to broadcast television, hackers are pushing its digital video recorder to new heights--and possibly giving the company some ideas about where to go next.

TiVo boxes are in many ways a perfect target for gadget hobbyists, providing both the means and motive to create some high-powered enhancements.

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What's new:
The DVRs, which use mostly off-the-shelf computer components and run the open-source Linux operating system, make it easy for curious hackers to try out their skills.

Bottom line:
TiVo may frown on the practice officially, but it has done little to crack down on such tinkering so far.

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The devices use mostly off-the-shelf computer components and run the open-source Linux operating system, making it easy for curious tinkerers to try out their skills. In addition, TiVo has intentionally left many tantalizing features out of its boxes due to concerns over potential copyright violations.

That combination has fueled a high-stakes game of underground innovation for TiVo, which must tread carefully as it seeks to create new features to stay ahead of rivals without angering Hollywood and broadcasters such as partner DirecTV.

TiVo hacks available for download let those inclined to tinker do a range of things: add a Web interface to the TiVo unit, convert programs to DVD and other formats, alter TiVo native features, expand the unit's hard drive, transfer files back and forth from the unit to the PC, or archive shows at smaller file sizes.

"TiVo is missing some tremendous opportunities," said Riley Cassel, a programmer who last year released a popular, unauthorized extension called MFS_FTP. "There's no technical reason you couldn't watch TV across the Net...Of course, the problem is that the same software can be used to broadcast HBO or Discovery HD, so Hollywood would go nuts."

Among hard-core, high-tech TiVo users, customization is king. The risks of voiding the warranty, provoking Hollywood or even getting electrocuted aren't enough to keep some fans from prying open their units and hacking them.

"We don't really do anything--we don't condone it and don't encourage it."
--Bob Poinatowski, product manager, TiVo

TiVo may frown on the practice officially, but it has done little to crack down on such tinkering so far. In fact, some industry veterans said they believe the company is reaping significant fringe benefits as it now moves to add enhancements aimed at fending off deep-pocket rivals.

"I think it's great for TiVo and the industry," said Mark Cuban, who sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo for $5.7 billion and is now president of HDNet, a provider of high-definition TV programming. "You aren't going to switch from TiVo after you have customized it."

TiVo said it will enforce its terms of service and reserves the right to pull the plug on users who violate these. But the company also acknowledged that, in practice at least, its treatment of the thriving hacker community is hands-off.

"We don't really do anything--we don't condone it and don't encourage it," said Bob Poinatowski, product manager for TiVo's service business. "We don't really participate in any way, though we know they're there."

Another TiVo representative who asked not to be named said TiVo had not gotten any blowback from content companies and that

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