The Captain's Prop


The last few weeks have been spent on other priorities, most notably evaluating a new non-Tivo DVR. Actually, no, this thing is an "HDD/DVD Video Recorder."

Interestingly, the term "DVR" appears nowhere in the manual.

I'm not sure what that means. It could mean that Toshiba, makers of the very nice Toshiba RS-TX60, is trying to continue that market without Tivo's help. Unfortunately, this attempt was disastrous.

The RD-XS54SU transposed the post-hyphen lettering. It should be the 54SUXS. At one point I googled info and found 2 terrible reviews -- out of 2. The manual is hyper-technical. The menus, which drive everything, match the manual, and with small print most everywhere. And don't get me started on the remote, with so many buttons it has a flip-down panel to squeeze more into the space. I'm not kidding.

The programming info is sponsored by TV Guide. There is no way to avoid that fact. Had they sacrificed just a little space on their TV Guide logo presentation, they might have found enough screen space in the menus to explain how to use the thing.

My friend Dave owns the TX60, and bought the XS54 as a bedroom unit. He returned it just a week later. Then, seeing the TX60 discontinued, he got the returned unit back.

You see, the TX60 comes from the factory with a scaled-down Tivo membership -- for life. And, just like the life-time membership option, the unit is no longer available.

After hearing of my anger and travails with Tivo, he made a search for another TX60. Out of some 5,000+ retailers, he found 2 units available.

He bought one.

I currently have the 54 hooked up behind me. It has the loudest cooling fan of any media device I have ever seen. And it's turned off.

I thought about buying this from Dave, but am now afraid I cannot. My wife will take it for a spin before I bring it back, but I don't have hopes of her developing any tech crushes any time soon.

And she is a TV technician.

Barriers to Bankrupting Tivo

Let's be clear: This community is not about building open source DVR's. It's about inserting alternate software into existing DVR hardware.

If this were made straightforward, millions of Tivo users could immediately cancel Tivo membership, and the Tivo company would be bankrupt.

Considering this, what sorts of barriers do you think Tivo hardware engineers included to prevent this doomsday scenario?
The Captain's Prop

Some Background

I've been giving a lot of thought about why any DVR should come with the open source or at least a non-subcription option. To analyze why the most familiar SBS (again, Subscription Based Services) crosses the line on what might be acceptable legally, let's look at other SBSs and examine what they provide.

The most famous would have to be cable television. Those with tampered cable boxes were and still are punished for "stealing" cable service. Why?

Because it truly is a service, and taking the content from the cable without compensation is, well, theft.

Cable companies provide more than just a wire to your house which feeds the television. The conglomerate of companies that provide the programming -- HBO, CNN, and their ilk -- do more than just rerun shows that went off the air years ago. They also produce and present original programming. Without the subscription fees, there would be no programming. Those channels that rerun Gilligan's Island ad infinitum are generally local UHF stations like TBS that saw a niche in the formation of cable and now nationally broadcast over wires instead of the air. They would never have survived in any less than the largest of cities. Furthermore, it takes bucks to keep those cables connected.

Satellite radio? Exactly the same. They are paying people like Howard Stern and Bob Edwards real money for content that can be obtained only through satellite radio service. True, they don't maintain many cables, but hey -- as far as I know, these companies paid to launch frickin' rockets to make this thing work.

SBS DVR as a similar service? Not so fast.

A DVR, any DVR, is merely a hard drive, a television channel tuner, and a mechanism for recording the tuned content from an antennae or cable, digitizing it, storing it, and later replaying it from the drive. You must provide the television; you must provide the content through cable, satellite dish, or at-home antennae. A bare-bones DVR is a mere content intermediary. It's a VCR with a recording medium other than magnetic tape. That's it.

A subscription does have some benefit. One no longer has to look in the local cable guide to know what on what channel and at what time a particular show airs.

"Tivo Suggestions" examines your viewing habits and compares them to other Tivo subscribers, recording shows the service finds in common for you to try.

We found this really irritating. My wife works for a small network of university cable stations. She occasionally flips to her stations to make sure the shows are airing with the proper "bugs," the little logos in the corners, et cetera.

After doing that once or twice, Tivo recorded a raft of surgery and astronomy lectures that we had no interest in watching. Recordings got so numerous we started watching live TV on another set just to avoid the onslaught.

We finally read through the manual enough to find the option that tells the machine we don't wish Suggestions; but that doesn't mean our privacy is secure. Information about every show we watch, every pause we make, every commercial we skip -- everything -- is uploaded to a databank at Tivo headquarters somewhere and sold back to the networks. Consider it the ultimate Nielson ratings system.

Knoledge of this situation presented me with the first hint of Conflict of Interest suspicion: If they were taking money from me and "them," the networks, to whom are they more beholden?

The answer can be found on the Tivo remote control.

Just below the Play, Rewind and Advance buttons, there are two tiny little buttons on either side of the "slow" button. The one on the right used to skip ahead 15 seconds instantly. The one on the left instantly goes back 8 seconds. In the past, when one found content one might want not to view, one pushed the right button however many times were necessary to clear the objectionable content, then reviewed with the left button to start the desired programming.

Under pressure from programmers, the functionality of the the right button was changed completely. To clear content, one only has the option of Advancing at three successive speeds. This means that, however objectionable one may find content sandwiched between the desired shows, one must at least view partially view it.

Compared to the skip feature, it sucks.

When I first got a Sony DVR with Tivo service from a friend on "permaloan," my first thought was to connect it and record/playback a few shows by entering the timepoints and channels.

I couldn't. The machine would let me do nothing but watch pretty animations imploring me to "connect to Tivo service" to check the status of my subscription. Since I was just trying the thing out to see if I wanted the hassle of keeping it, I turned it off instead and started to clean up the unpacking process, watching live TV as I did so.

After 30 seconds, the machine turned itself back on, started with the animations and music, and started the begging all over again. I had to unplug and disconnect the device from all power just to reclaim my television.

The newer Tivo II devices lack even an off switch.

Let's conclude by playing make-believe.

Imagine buying a General Motors automobile with OnStar service. From what I've heard from those who have the service, it's pretty nifty, providing owners with GPS locations and the ability to unlock doors with a phone call. True, the services OnStar provides are neither necessary nor critical to the operation of an automobile -- people have been driving cars for a hundred years now without it.

But, like Tivo services, they are pretty cool.

Imagine driving the car for the first year, but, since gas prices have risen and money is a bit tight, dropping OnStar rather than renewing the subscription.

Now imagine the next day trying to start your car to get to work, only to have no starter, no power, just a little light on your dash suddenly flash with "Check OnStar Subscription Status."

That's Tivo.
The Captain's Prop


I started Open Source DVR in response to my troubles and qualms with subscription-based DVR systems. I hope to gather like-minded individuals to develop if possible, or fund if necessary, an open-source operating system for any given DVR.

What sparked this quest? Quite simply, I feel strongly that technology -- any technology -- should offer greater utility for less cost. If a given technology does not pass this initial "smell test," it should be abandoned, or at least shelved until it can mature.

There are currently certain systems on the market today that do not pass the smell test. Instead, they stink.

Initially, I foresee this community sharing its collective technical knowledge to; plumb the most productive avenues of approach to the challenge of liberating machines from the illegal shackles of the Subscription Based Service (from here on the SBS); debate and research the legal and ethical implications of such a quest; and, if possible and agreeable, to just do it.

Before I personally back any action, I wish to have the legal precedents defending such a launch outlined in full. In a later post, I will present what I feel to be the pertinent legal statutes that would adequately defend any actions, and what I see to be the untested or poorly understood precedents that could foil any endeavour the community attempts.

I do not want to be a part of any community that knowingly breaks the law. For that reason, I refuse to have this community develop any operating system that can be used to subvert current copyright laws, ie. to allow a DVR/DVD with burner unit to rip and burn copywrite protected content.

All of this said, I welcome new members who wish to contribute positively, be that as an active participant or idle spectator.