TiVo looks for an edge

Company enlists outside developers to help turn its DVR into home networking hub. Images: Music to TiVo's ears

Kyle Copeland has more than 90GB worth of digital music stored on various networked computers and Apple Computer iPods. The problem was finding a convenient way to play it.

Airport Express devices plugged into various power outlets throughout his home allowed him to wirelessly play selections from his vast music collection on stereos and speakers in different rooms.

But every time the 29-year-old Marlboro, Mass., engineer wanted to change a song playing from his iTunes library over his wireless network, he had to walk over to his computer. Sitting in front of his television one day, Copeland had a realization: "That's when I thought, 'Most places where there are speakers there's a television.'"

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What's new:
TiVo's Home Media Engine Developer Challenge has Java developers scrambling for ways to turn the company's DVRs into a multimedia hub.

Bottom line:
Expanding its offering is essential for TiVo, a fact that's not lost on company executives. Will the creative enhancements submitted for the upcoming contest give the company the boost it needs?

More stories on TiVo

So Copeland and fellow engineer John Brosnan created iSeeiTunes, a program that lets users control the songs played over a network via their TV.

With more than 5,000 users since its March launch, iSeeiTunes has become a relative hit among the TiVo developer community, garnering high ratings in forums dedicated to TiVo applications. The program's popularity speaks both to its usefulness and the creative potential of developers, which TiVo hopes to harness as it attempts to transform its service into more than for just digital video recording.

Copeland and Brosnan, in fact, are entering their creation in TiVo's HME (Home Media Engine) Developer Challenge, a contest that calls on Java developers to create applications for broadband-connected TiVo recorders. Home Media Engine is the code name for TiVo's strategy to boost development of its DVR service to include broader capabilities.

Expanding its offering is mandatory for TiVo, and that's not lost on company executives. Many critics have said that TiVo's service, while innovative and backed by loyal fans and customers, is simply one feature that can't support an entire company. This analysis has seemingly been backed up by the number of copycat DVR services being made available by cable and satellite service operators. Software giant Microsoft even added a DVR feature to a version of its Windows XP operating system, Media Center Edition.

iSeeiTunes Digital video recorders are similar to VCRs, allowing consumers to record TV shows, but instead of storing to tape, DVRs use a hard drive. In addition, the digital devices can pause, fast-forward or rewind through shows and be programmed to record shows weeks ahead of time.

The Linux-based software behind the TiVo service has always been fertile ground for hackers, and while the company frowned on those efforts initially, it did little to stop them. However, TiVo is now encouraging developers to tinker in hopes of finding new features to add to its iconic DVR service and expand TiVo into an interface to control home networks.

"One of the things (HME) brings to the community is the ability to extend TiVo without it being considered "hacking"--it's legitimate now," said Amir Gharaat, the project manager for HME at TiVo. "Now they're developing applications and extending the functionality, and in the future, we'll do even more, as we add capabilities to the platform."

Hacking: It's a good thing
TiVo's HME Developer Challenge is part of that effort. Consumers with broadband-connected TiVo recorders are still a small number--about 300,000--and so far only about 60 applications are available on the Internet. The deadline for contest submissions is May 1, and the winners will be announced at the JavaOne conference in late June.

"There's a lot of interest around hacking TiVo boxes...this was a way to help people see TiVo as a platform," said Arthur van Hoff, former principal engineer at TiVo responsible for the HME project. Van Hoff has even created a program allowing him to control his home-lighting system from his TiVo.

Software and applications in development for HME aren't widely available yet but will be sometime after the contest, Gharaat said. TiVo often staggers the release of new software in an effort to debug the programs before releasing them to its entire audience. The new programs will initially only be available to owners of standalone Series2 DVR models.

Copeland's setup has the iSeeiTunes application loaded onto his Apple PowerBook notebook, which, along with his Series2 DVR, is connected to his wireless network. On his DVR, iSeeiTunes shows up as a menu listing that allows him to tell the notebook

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