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UltimateTV users get shrinking feeling

CNET has learned that a software bug is shrinking hard-drive storage space on set-top boxes for Microsoft's new interactive TV service.

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DVR revolution remains on pause
Adi Kishore, analyst, The Yankee Group
A software bug is inadvertently shrinking hard-drive storage space on set-top boxes for UltimateTV, the new interactive TV service from Microsoft.

CNET has learned that the bug reduces how many hours of programming people can record onto the hard drive of UltimateTV set-top boxes. Customers began reporting the problem on Web forums earlier this month.

On Thursday, Microsoft confirmed the existence of the bug.

The company has prepared a downloadable patch that it believes fixes the problem, said Susan Watson, Microsoft's communications director. If the patch works, Microsoft will include it in a new version of the software coming mid-May. Because it's a software bug, it affects all set-top boxes using the UltimateTV service.

"It's not a hardware or manufacturing issue," Watson said.

UltimateTV combines elements of Microsoft's WebTV--a television-based e-mail and Web surfing service--DirecTV satellite service and digital video recording. The set-top boxes and service have been available for about a month following delays in getting the $449 receivers to market.

Gartner analyst Mark Snowden said the bug could have a larger impact on Microsoft than solely shrinking hard-drive capacity.

"This is a big ol' black eye for them," Snowden said. "We're in the development stage of this market, and this sort of thing makes it that much more difficult for it to catch on. The real pain will come from the broader public opinion of it and not necessarily in the number of customers that have it now."

Jason Perlow, an UltimateTV subscriber in New Jersey, said the storage capacity of his system has dropped from 28 hours to 10 hours.

"Shows are being deleted as if the hard drive is full, and then that capacity is no longer available. My capacity has shrunk dramatically," he said.

On Wednesday when first contacted Microsoft, the company said it had received one complaint of the problem from a beta tester last fall. "We tested for and were not able to reproduce this condition in the final software shipped to consumers," Microsoft initially said. "Thus, we shipped the product because it appeared the condition was not an issue."

But on Thursday, the company said further checking uncovered reports of nine new complaints.

Microsoft said the problem is related to deleting shows while in pause mode.

"We believe it is a software bug that is exacerbated by some fairly obscure pattern of usage by the subscriber," Microsoft said in a statement. "If a subscriber deletes a recorded program while in 'pause' mode, the listing of this recorded program disappears from the My Shows listing, but the recorded content is not actually deleted from the hard drive, thus the continued diminished storage space on the hard drive."

UltimateTV subscribers can get the downloadable patch by calling Microsoft technical support.

Set-top box owners began posting complaints to Internet bulletin boards detailing their experiences earlier this month. The maximum recording time was continually shrinking from the preset 30 hours, according to postings.

"With the first UltimateTV receiver, I was able to record up to 30 hours," one customer wrote Tuesday in a posting. "This quickly disappeared over the course of a week and ended up with only 12 hours recording time. I basically was losing everything I wanted to watch."

The subscriber returned the set-top box for a new one but then experienced the same problem.

Another customer, who lives in Colorado, was confused about the shortened recording capacity.

"Tonight I check My Shows, and shows that were there this morning are now gone, and the total time of the recorded shows is only five hours," the subscriber wrote Saturday in a posting. "Why is UTV deleting old shows to make room when the total time of what's currently recorded is only five hours?"

Microsoft executives have been pushing the digital video recording capability as the anchor feature for UltimateTV. The feature allows viewers to record TV programs onto a hard drive instead of onto videotapes. Microsoft's main competitor in this market is TiVo.

UltimateTV set-top boxes also allow viewers to surf the Web, send and receive e-mail, browse electronic program guides, and tape a show on one channel while watching a different show on a separate channel. Viewers can buy the receivers but must also subscribe to UltimateTV to get support for the services. Subscription fees range from $32 to $113 per month.