Subscription-Free TiVo Could Hit Fast Forward

What mix of features will take consumer hard-disk-based video recording to the next level? Guest columnist Ross Rubin runs down the list, including basic services, grid computing and DVD combo drives.

For fans of digital video recorders, as well as storage executives waiting in the wings for the market to take off, the recent announcements of a new version of the ReplayTV recorder came with some mixed news.

On one hand, the forthcoming 5500 DVR model should provide some exciting new features that optimize its use on the home network. Customers with multiple ReplayTV devices will be able to start a recorded program on one unit and finish it on a second. This feature request has been roaming the bulletin boards for some time.

In an even cleverer vein that hints of the promise of grid computing, a ReplayTV will be able to farm out recording of shows when they sense a conflict with other ReplayTV units on the network. Clearly, ReplayTVs new owner, Digital Networks North America, is starting to blur the boundaries between the capabilities of the device and the network.

Its unfortunate that these features—one that actively involves the user and one that occurs behind the scenes—have been overshadowed by the anticipated announcement that the company will be removing a few features to mollify Hollywood.

ReplayTV units will no longer be able to send shows across the Internet to other users. Furthermore, the company will remove the more popular "Commercial Advance" feature that automatically removes the commercials during playback of recorded TV shows. Preserved, however, is the quick-skip feature that allows consumers to skip past commercials manually. While Ive defended the first feature, in practice the low installed base of ReplayTVs made it impractical, and the cumbersome setup and slow speed of the feature dampened its appeal anyway.

Its good to see that ReplayTV is innovating even as it cuts back some features, a virtual felony in the technology industry. However, this new line will likely continue to stay far from the mainstream, since its new features rely on multiple units of what is already a pricey product.

In contrast, two other recent announcements promise to bring hard disk recording to a broader audience.

First, TiVo has announced TiVo Basic, a partnership program that will enable consumer electronics vendors to include a subset of TiVo functionality without requiring a monthly fee or annual subscription. Features include three days of program data and all the "live" TV caching tricks of pausing and instant replay. Toshiba has signed on to produce a combo DVD player that integrates TiVo Basic.

Now, TiVo Basic may not transform the TV experience of its users the way the full-service offering does. It should, though, prove a significant defense against the impending competition from the return of the bad old days of time-based recording interfaces. TiVo also hopes that the ability for users to upgrade at any time will be a way to lure subscribers.

In addition, TiVo Basic will be a great deal for new subscribers because it allows consumers to revert back to the limited free service, good insurance should TiVo decide to raise its monthly rate again. This basic level of functionality isnt available to regular subscribers who stop paying their dues. Their service reverts to little more than a tapeless VCR.

Second, Apex Digital has announced a combination hard-disk recorder and progressive-scan DVD player that will be available for under $200. This is the company that won the hearts of hackers with its inexpensive DVD players that brought price points down to $50.

Matching digital video recorders with DVD players is a smart move for two reasons: it removes component clutter from the home theater and it finally provides a viable digital replacement for the VCR, at least until DVD recorders come under $250. Indeed, the recent announcement that recordable DVD leader Pioneer will license TiVo paves the way for a best-in-class DVR/DVD recorder.

Unfortunately, the combo products are coming into the market at a time when the DVD player has already penetrated many U.S. households, and DVD recorders are on the verge of reaching more mainstream prices.

Still, the inclusion of hard disk recording into more mainstream consumer electronics devices bodes well for the technology. The combination of smart software and hard disk capacity could enable DVRs to realize the consumer market dream of TV on tap.

Ross Rubin is editor of the Ziff Davis Wireless Supersite.