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Dec 31, 2019

TiVo is a computer. To understand the history, let’s hop in our trusty time machine. It’s 1997. England gives Hong Kong back to China, after 156 years of British rule. The Mars Pathfinder touches down on Mars. The OJ Simpson trials are behind us, but the civil suit begins. Lonely Scottish scientists clone a sheep and name it Dolly. The first Harry Potter book is published. Titanic is released. Tony Blair is elected the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Hanson sang Mmmm Bop. And Pokemon is released. No not Pokemon Go, but Pokemon. The world was changing. The Notorious BIG was gunned down not far from where I was living at the time. Blackstreet released No Diggity. Third Eye Blind led a Semi-Charmed life and poppy grunge killed grunge grunge. And television. Holy buckets. Friends, Seinfeld, X Files, ER, Buff and the Vampire Slayer, Frasier, King of the Hill, Dharma and Greg, South Park, The Simpsons, Stargate, Home Improvement, Daria, Law and Order, Oz, Roseanne, The View, The Drew Carey Show, Family Matters, Power Rangers, JAG, Tenacious D, Lois and Clark, Spawn. Mosaic the first web browser, was released, Sergey Brin and Larry Page registered a weird domain name called Google because BackRub just seemed kinda’ weird. Facebook, craigslist, and Netflix were also purchased. Bill Gates became the richest business nerd in the world. DVDs were released. The hair was big. But commercials were about to become a thing of the past. So were cords. 802.11, also known as Wi-Fi, became a standard. Microsoft bought WebTV, but something else was about to happen that would forever change the way we watched television. We’d been watching television for roughly the same way for about 70 years. Since January 13th in 1928, when the General Electric factory in Schenectady, New York broadcast as WGY Television, using call letters W2XB. That was for experiments, but they launched W2XBS a little later, now known as WNBC. They just showed a Felix the Cat spinning around on a turntable for 2 hours a day to test stuff. A lot of testing around different markets were happening and The Queen’s Messenger would be the first drama broadcast on television in LA later that year. But it wasn’t until 1935 that the BBC started airing regular content and the late 1930s that regular programming started in the US, spreading slowly throughout the world, with Japan being one of the last countries to get a regular broadcast in 1953. So for the next several decades a love affair began with humans and their televisions. Color came to prime time in 1972, after the price of color TVs introduced over the couple of decades before started to come down in price. Entire industries sprang up around the television, or at least migrated from newspapers and radio to television. Moon landings, football, baseball, the news, game shows. Since that 1972 introduction of color tv, the microcomputer revolution had come. Computers were getting smaller. Hard drive capacity was growing. I could stroll down to the local Fry’s and buy a Western Digital, IBM Deskstar, Seagate Barracuda, an HP Kitty Hawk, or even a 10,000 RPM Cheetah. But the cheaper drives had come down enough for mass distribution. And so it was when Time Warner, a major US cable company at the time, decided to test a digital video system. They tapped Silicon Graphics alumni Jim Barton and Mike Ramsay to look into a set top box, or network appliance, or something. After initial testing, Time Warner didn’t think it was quite the right time to build nation-wide. They’d spent $100 million dollars testing the service in Orlando. So the pair struck out on their own. Silicon Valley was abuzz about set top boxes, now that the web was getting big, dialup was getting easy, and PCs were pretty common fare. Steve Perlman’s WebTV got bought by Microsoft for nearly half a billion dollars. Which became MSN TV and played the foundation for the Xbox hardware. I remember well that the prevailing logic of the time was that the set top box was the next big thing. The lagerts would join the Internet revolution. Grandma and Grandpa would go online. So Ramsay and Barton got a check for $3M from VC firms to further develop their idea. They founded a company called Teleworld and started running public trials of a new device that came out of their research, called TiVo. The set top box would go beyond television and be a hub for home networking, managing refrigerators, thermostats, manage your television, order a grocery delivery, and even bring the RFC for an internet coffee pot to life! But they were a little before their time on some of this. After some time, they narrowed the focus to a television receiver that could record content. The VC firms were so excited they ponied up another $300 million dollars to take the product to market. Investors even asked how long it would take the TV networks to shut them down. Disruption was afoot. When Ramsay and Barton approached Apple, Claris and Lucas Arts veteran Randy Komisar, he suggested they look at charging for a monthly service. But he, as with the rest of Silicon Valley, bought their big idea, especially since Komisar had sat on the board of WebTV. TiVo would need to raise a lot of money to ink deals with the big content providers of the time. They couldn’t alienate the networks. No one knew, but the revolution in cutting the cord was on the way. Inking deals with those providers would prove to be much more expensive than building the boxes. They set about raising capital. They inked deals with Sony, Philips, Philips, and announced a release of the first TiVo at the Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1999. They’d built an outstanding executive team. They’d done their work. And on March 31st, 1999, a Blue Moon, they released the Series 1 for about $500 and with a $9.95 monthly subscription fee. The device would use a modem to download tv show listings, which would later be replaced with an Ethernet, then Wi-Fi option. The Series1, like Apple devices at the time, would sport a PowerPC processor. Although this one was a 403GCX that only clocked in at 54 MHz - but cheap enough for an embedded system like this. It also came with 32 MB of RaM, a 13 to 60 gig IDE/ATA drive, and would convert analog signal into MPEG-2, storing from 14 to 60 hours of television programming. Back then, you could use the RCA cables or S-Video. They would go public later that year, raising 88 million dollars and nearly doubling in value overnight. By 2000 TiVo was in 150,000 homes and burning through cash far faster than they were making it. It was a huge idea and if big ideas take time to percolate, huge ideas take a lot of time. And a lot of lawsuits. In order to support the new hoarder mentality they were creating, The Series2 would come along in 2002 and would come with up to a 250 gig drive, USB ports, CPUs from 166 to 266 MHz, from 32 to 64 megs of RAM, and the MPEG encoder got moved off to the Broadcom BCM704x chips. In 2006, the Series 3 would introduce HD support, add HDMI, 10/100 Ethernet, and support drives of 2 terabytes with 128 megs of RAM. Ramsay left the company in 2007 to go work at Venture Partners. Barton, the CTO, would leave in 2012. Their big idea had been realized. They weren’t needed any more. Ramsay and Barton would found streaming service Qplay, but that wouldn’t make it over two years. By then, TiVo had become a verb. Series4 brought us to over a thousand hours of television and supported bluetooth, custom apps, and sport a Broadcom 400 MHZ dual core chip. But it was 2010. Popular DVD subscription service Netflix had been streaming and now had an app that could run on the Series 4. So did Rhapsody, Hulu, and YouTube. The race was on for streaming content. TiVo was still aiming for bigger, faster, cheaper set top boxes. But people were consuming content differently. TiVo gave apps, but Apple TV, Roku, Amazon, and other vendors were now in the same market for a fraction of the cost and without a subscription. By 2016 TiVo was acquired by Rovi for 1.1 Billion dollars and as is often the case in these kinds of scenarios seems listless. Direction… Unknown. After such a disruptive start, I can’t imagine any innovation will ever recapture that spirit from the turn of the millennia. And so in December of 2019 (the month I’m recording this episode), after months trying to split TiVo into two companies so they could be sold separately TiVo scrapped that idea and merged with Xperi. I find that we don’t talk about Tivo much any more. That doesn’t mean they’ve gone anywhere, just that the model has shifted over the years. According to TechCrunch “TiVo CEO David Shull noted also that Xperi’s annual licensing business includes over 100 million connected TV units, and relationships with content providers, CE manufacturers, and automotive OEMs, which now benefit from TiVo’s technology.” TiVo was a true disruptor. Along with Virtual CEO Randy Komisar, they sold Silicon Valley on Monthly Recurring Revenue as a key performance indicator. They survived the .com bubble and even thrived in it. They made television interactive. They didn’t cut our cords, but they expanded our minds so we could cut them. They introduced the idea of responsibly selling customer data as a revenue stream to help keep those fees in check. And in so doing, they let manufacturers micro market goods and services. They revolutionized the way we consume content. Something we should all be thankful for. So next time you’re binging a show from one of your favorite providers, just think about the fact that you might have to spend time with your family or friends if it weren’t for TiVo. You owe them a huge thanks.