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Goodbye, TiVo

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You'll be missed, but not really

There are precious few constants in my life. In the past decade I’ve lived at five different addresses in two cities. I’ve changed insurance providers a half dozen times. My go-to Starbucks order has morphed from a latte, to an Americano, to a mocha, to plain black coffee. I’m unpredictable, you see, a real firecracker.

Then there’s TiVo.

The familiar bleeps and bloops of the TiVo interface have permeated my television since I was a fresh-faced college graduate, which was longer ago than I care to admit. My relationship with TiVo has survived multiple bouts with Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and even a brush with DirecTV. (Goodness, those were the lean years.)

A decade ago, TiVo was an obvious thing to own for anyone who took television seriously. DVRs — still science fiction for many cable operators — felt like an obvious necessity from the moment you used them for the first time. And TiVo in particular was ahead of the curve: it had basically invented the DVR, after all. It had years of experience on its scattershot competition. The user interface was fantastic. The iconic "peanut" remote felt at home in the hand.

It had years of experience on its scattershot competition

Years went by; I upgraded from TiVo to TiVo, surviving the HD transition and the advent of the CableCARD. Every time I moved or changed cable providers, I’d decline the archaic set-tops they offered, which — slowly but surely — were developing rudimentary DVR capability. I powered through encounter after encounter with clueless customer service representatives who didn’t know what a CableCARD was, much less how to activate one. (To their credit, cable companies have gotten much better about this in recent years, but those early days were rough.)

But then something happened. Well, actually, nothing happened. TiVo innovated at a pace unbefitting its role as a disruptor; it got weirdly complacent for a company that was facing constant threat from the cable and satellite providers who were creeping on its only game. Behind the scenes, TiVo was effectively becoming a patent-holding firm, treating its shrinking customer base like a sideshow. It kept selling hardware, even as it put that hardware on the back burner internally.

I wouldn’t say that TiVo’s products have been in stasis, but they aren’t far off. The company is still in the midst of a UI refresh that it has been working on since 2010. Let me say that again for emphasis: TiVo has been working on a new interface, piecemeal, for nearly five years. To this day, if you step beyond the bounds of the "refreshed" UI, your television flashes as you’re transported into a standard-definition universe circa 1999.

I wouldn’t say that TiVo’s products have been in stasis, but they aren’t far off

Don’t get me wrong, there have been flashes of brilliance along the way; the TiVo Stream and Mini are decent options for place-shifting content in and out of the home, for instance. And the peanut remote — which uses RF instead of infrared these days — is as good as ever (though its value has been diminished by the need for a more powerful universal clicker like a Logitech Harmony).

But if any other tech company on the planet moved at TiVo’s pace — releasing just-good-enough hardware once every few years — they’d be dead. The only thing that has kept TiVo alive for me, and for many others in its diminishing pool of hangers-on, is the specter of using cable company-issued hardware in its place.

No more. TiVo, this fossil of a Web 1.0 startup ambling along on diminishing shreds of patent revenue, finally pushed me over the edge. It should've been the lukewarm hardware and software that did it, but it ended up being something much sillier.

In the process of moving from Chicago to New York this year, I upgraded my aging TiVo Premiere with a Roamio Plus. I canceled service on my old box and added service to the new one. Somewhere along the way, a month of service on the old box went unpaid, possibly because my card had been canceled in the Home Depot hack. I received a bill for this balance in late November; just a few days later, TiVo sent the balance to a collection agency, even as I had (and continue to have) an auto-paid account in good standing on my new box. You just don’t treat a customer like that, much less one who’s been loyal through thick and thin for 10-plus years. It’s like getting smacked and hugged at the same time.

When the disruptor stops disrupting, it gets disrupted

In the scheme of things, it’s a minor annoyance: all I need to do is pay this $21.76 balance and call it a day. But really, it was my wake-up call to get off a stagnant platform that’s only good enough to qualify as a lesser of two evils.

Now, I’m in a different purgatory, having picked up an "Enhanced DVR" from Time Warner Cable over the weekend. The UI kind of sucks, and the box — even though it’s brand new — looks like it hasn’t evolved in about a decade.

Sounds familiar, come to think of it.