Is TiVo's Time Up?

The biggest loser in Cisco's acquisition of Scientific Atlanta is a little company that's well loved by its customers: TiVo. The Silicon Valley pioneer helped invent the digital video recorder (DVR), and its name became synonymous with the technology's wondrous ability to pause and record live TV to a set-top box and to save us from TV ads. Cisco executives almost certainly considered acquiring TiVo as a way to break into digital entertainment (though they declined to comment on any potential deal). Cisco sizes up most companies in its field of vision, and John Chambers himself keeps three TiVos in his home, while Cisco senior VP Mike Volpi was a TiVo beta tester.

But as bigger companies like Scientific Atlanta and Motorola copied TiVo with their own generic DVRs and started shipping more units through the cable companies that buy their other equipment, Cisco found it easy to conclude which to acquire. "Market shares have shifted pretty dramatically away from TiVo," says Volpi. "TiVo was ahead of the market and now a lot of people have caught up."

These are grim times for TiVo. Nearly eight years since its revolutionary recorder went on sale, there are only 4 million boxes in consumer homes--a quarter of the 16 million DVRs in use. (By comparison, the iPod went on sale in 2001, and Apple has since sold 42 million of the music players and owns most of the market.) Even worse, two thirds of all TiVos are inside the satellite systems of the News Corp.-owned DirecTV, which has terminated its TiVo deal in favor of a DVR made by another News Corp. subsidiary. Not surprisingly, TiVo has had only a single profitable quarter in its history and most analysts are grumpy about its inability to get any of the major cable or satellite companies behind it.

Last summer TiVo replaced cofounder Mike Ramsay with a new CEO, Tom Rogers, an NBC veteran who disputes the pessimism over TiVo's future. Rogers thinks TiVo can attract new users and industry partners with cooler features that don't appear in the generic DVRs of companies like Scientific Atlanta. For example, he recently unveiled KidZone--a tool that allows parents to use TiVo to browse through a list of acceptable programming for their children and then choose only what the parents want kids to watch. The rest of the TV is then locked down with a password. Rogers hopes KidZone is a "feature that will differentiate TiVo from generic DVRs."

TiVo has a few other tricks up its sleeve. Unlike the bare-bones DVRs, TiVo boxes allow users to transfer programming to laptops. And Rogers hints that soon TiVo will let users access more programming from the Internet, such as video blogs and the amateur movies that are now filling up sites like video.google.com, as opposed to from scheduled broadcasts. The plan is then to get the cable companies, with their own generic DVRs from Scientific Atlanta and Motorola, to offer a premium TiVo service to customers for an extra monthly fee. Already one cable giant, Comcast, has signed on and later this year will let its subscribers download the TiVo interface to the digital cable boxes already in their homes. TiVo must hope that its brand name and unique features are enough to attract those subscribers and change its fortunes.