The DVR is a bad hack and a stopgap

The DVR (a.k.a. TiVo, ReplayTV, PVRs, PC-based options such as MythTV and Windows Media Center, and the free or cheap units that cable or satellite companies give you) has been one of the most successful technology products of the decade. Most DVR owners swear they'll never go without one again.

I bet they'll be nearly extinct in another decade.

A bad hack

To geeks, a "hack" doesn't mean what the general public thinks. A hack is an indirect and unexpected solution to a problem, or a way to exploit something to get unintended but useful functionality.

A good hack is simple, elegant, ingenious, and complete: it won't fail in edge cases, it doesn't have negative side effects, and it provides all needed functionality. The Apple II earned infinite geek respect for its creator, Steve Wozniak, because its design is a collection of amazingly good hacks that simplified its circuitry and design into a basic, inexpensive, highly functional computer.

A bad hack, therefore, is an overly complex, clumsy, ugly patch for a problem that fails under suboptimal conditions and should only be used, if at all, as a stopgap or emergency fix until someone can replace it with a good hack.

The problem

Watching TV presents a handful of key problems that DVRs promise to solve:

  • Nobody wants to watch commercials.
  • People often miss shows that they wanted to see.
  • People often want to see shows at a different time than when they're broadcast.
  • I guess people sometimes want to pause live TV, but I'm not convinced that enough people do this to be meaningful. Most DVR nuts hardly ever watch live TV, and most people who aren't DVR nuts don't have a DVR or wouldn't know or care how to use one. So I'm going to ignore this function for now.

The solution is clear: Allow people to choose TV programming from an automatically updating list and watch them whenever they want, with few or no traditional commercials.

DVRs and modern TV service accomplish this with a series of fragile, clumsy, wasteful hacks. Modern TV shows are stored in a high-quality digital format by the broadcasters. All TV programming on every channel is constantly sent over all cable lines to all TVs, and there's not enough signal bandwidth to fit everything simultaneously in full quality, so it's highly compressed (which greatly reduces the quality). Every DVR uses a phone line and a modem (or an internet connection) to contact a server and download its own copy of the TV listings, then when it's getting to approximately the correct time for the show to start, the tuner switches to the proper frequency, which might be showing the desired program. The signal is converted to analog video, losing a bit more quality, for regular TV-watching. The DVR redigitizes the analog video in a different format, losing even more quality, then it saves it on a loud mechanical hard drive with many moving parts and an astronomical failure rate.

The potential for failure is huge. What if the show starts early or ends late? (What if it's Lost and you miss the last 10 minutes? What if you invest an hour into Law & Order, only to miss the verdict?) What if the TV listings are changed at the last minute? What if the hard drive dies before you watch the show? What if the hard drive fills up? What if your TV service has a glitch or outage during the show? (The glitch or outage is recorded. Thanks a lot.) What if there's a breaking news bulletin that's overlaid onto the bottom of the video, hiding some critical detail or subtitle, but it's completely irrelevant when you watch the show 2 weeks later? (It's recorded too.) What if you want to see a show that aired last night, but you didn't record it for whatever reason?

Using a DVR is like watching a camcorder-pirated movie with people constantly coughing and walking in front of the camera.

The real solution

Live TV is great in many cases, so we can keep it. But instead of offering awful DVRs to hack together a personal "on-demand" service, just give us one.

The TV service providers already have large servers full of digital shows that they stream to subscribers whenever they want under some sort of "on-demand" brand. Great idea, but all of the content is awful. (Except Howard Stern On Demand.)

Doing it right is really quite simple, once you convince the content providers to allow you to (that's the hard part). All we want is a menu that shows us all of the programming we care about that has aired in the last few months (or further back, if you have the capacity). If we discover a new show and it's five episodes into the season, we should at least be able to go back and watch the first four.

It needs to be updated during or immediately after the airing of each show. Like other on-demand services, we should be able to watch it with a simple digital cable box that doesn't contain a hard drive. And commercials should be minimized or completely eliminated. (For this luxury, we're willing to pay extra.)

It's not a radical notion: it's simply making a better version of the functionality we've badly hacked together with DVRs.


If the price is right, I see Apple's iTunes Store and the upcoming "iTV" product being the first mass-market option that resembles this.

Now do you see why the iTV could be such a big deal?

Apple, don't screw this up. Please. It's the opportunity of a lifetime. (Well, not counting the personal computer revolution, the digital music explosion, portable music dominance, and selling sugared water.)

Cable and satellite companies: If you don't do it, you'll lose marketshare to those who will.