Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Tivo relaunch screws over faithful subscribers

For a long time I wanted a Tivo, and in December my wish came true when my boyfriend told me he had one stashed at home that he'd not set up and I could have it on long term loan if I wanted. It was a goodun, a series 1 with a Lifetime subscription. It took me a while to get it set up, partially due to discovering that not all telephone cables are created equal, but eventually I had it sitting there, dutifully switching over my Sky+ box and recording new TV on a whim.

It was everything I had hoped for, and I loved it. It's only been running for a month or so, and so it's not learnt a lot about me yet, but I don't know that it's worth teaching, now.

You'll notice I say I hooked it up to my Sky+ box, which may sound a little odd. After all, both Sky+ and the Tivo are set top boxes. Both contain hard drives and offer "series link" functionality. But the thing about Tivo, the killer application as far as I'm concerned, is the depth of its exploration. I can tell my Sky box to record stuff if I know it's on, and I can tell it to record every episode. It will do it in a higher quality and the disk has the capacity for much more content. What's missing, though, is the feedback loop. Tivo will run off and record things for me without my intervention, in a speculative "thought you might like this" kind of way. Then, and this is pretty damn cool, I get to say yay or nay. I hit a green thumbs-up button or a red thumbs-down from one to three times, and by doing so indicate my televisual preferences. Three thumbs down is "What the FUCK were you thinking?! Don't ever, EVER record this kind of shit for me again", while thumbs up compare the recording to sliced bread in a favourable manner. Tivo takes this information and uses it to guide its new choices of recordings.

Furthermore, I can set up the Tivo to record things according to a wishlist. I've asked it to record anything that is ever shown that contains the words "Thamesmead" or "larp" in its metadata. I've also told it to record any movie directed by David Fincher.

Sky+ doesn't even try to offer that kind of thing. And the stuff it does offer, the season links, for example, it doesn't do all that well. I set my Sky box to record House for me before Christmas. As American shows are wont to do, it then went on hiatus for a while. Sky+ has not recognised the second half of the season and hasn't recorded any of it. Tivo would have.

Tivo is relaunching in the UK, under the banner of Virgin. Now, I quite like the Virgin set top boxes as they were back in late 2009. The integrated iPlayer was excellent, and the interface was reasonably intuitive. It was still a bit dumb about recognising the rest of a series after a break, and it did need a reboot every now and then. I have no idea what, if any, innovation Virgin has seen since then, I moved house and the new area I'm in doesn't have Virgin. I assume, and hope, that the marrying of Virgin functionality with Tivo will be nicely put together. But I can't have it. Not in the short term. Not unless I move house.

I've been in touch with Virgin directly, asking when their cable service is likely to be available in my area. They told me they were going to do some costing and come back to me, although it could take up to 8 weeks. With the Christmas break, I gave them 10 weeks before chasing and then prodded the people who responded the first time around. They told me that my area is quite wide and would involve extensive work to cable. They don't know if they're going to do it, they're involved in a costing exercise that may take over a year to complete. So no cable imminent, then. And this is in Zone 4 of London. I'm less than 15 miles from the city, so what hope do people in villages have?

And this is why I was happy to put up with the setup I had, despite its foibles. Every so often Tivo interrupts me watching something to ask if it can turn over the Sky+ channel to record something it thought I might want. Until I changed the setup on the Sky box, I kept accidentally getting involved in recordings of shows, only to find that after 30 minutes it stopped and I was left with a still of the set top box going into power saving mode for the next 30 minutes. It's clunky, and it needs to use a phoneline to dial up for listings and it's not a large hard drive... but what Tivo does it does in a fantastic way. Until June.

Over the last couple of days the Tivo boxes have been collecting messages from base which apologise for the fact that they're going to brick the boxes in June, but encourage us to upgrade to the shiny new offering that Virgin have for us. There are even some kind of discount deals for those following the upgrade path. But for me? Me and all the other people using Tivo Series 1 because there is no real other option? Bye bye, nice knowing you!

It's made me wonder whether to continue my burgeoning relationship with the Tivo I have. Why teach it to never show me any bloody sport or say that yes, I think Buffy is great? It's going to do nothing come June that a basic video recorder in the 1980s couldn't.

The forums are awash with people discussing it. Many are pissed off about the approach, the sudden cut-off although they admit that given that support officially ends several years after it became impossible to purchase the Tivo product we've done pretty well out of it. There are questions over what PVR is the best fit to replace the Tivo. Well, for me there isn't one. Nothing does what Tivo did. I want the serendipity of discovering new content because a box in the corner of the room knows what I like. I like being able to give wide commands like "Record everything you find that has Stephen Fry in it".

Tivo have leapt into bed with Virgin and are working on an exclusive arrangement designed to promote both. There will be a new generation of Tivo subscribers who think it's new and innovative when they can issue those wide commands and let it get on with it. But for those of us outside the Virgin area? Too bad. Read the small print, when we said "lifetime" it never meant what you thought it meant, Tivo's off to play with its new friends.

Some of us are a bit sad about that.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Infinite Gateway

Thrilled to have discovered the Infinite Gateway blog. I think I'm going to pinch a load of their subject lines for my own musings in the future. Check them out if you're interested in larp.

Geeks of London, first meet

Last week I went along to the Geeks of London meetup that I happened across on Twitter. As it turned out, it was the first such meet, and as such it was very successful. Melinda and Christian organised the whole thing, with help from others and a clearly generous donation from Nokia Ovi who not only put money behind the bar for drinks and some nibbles, but also offered a prize of a new phone which was given away during the evening.

The format seemed to work well, with general mixing around the downstairs bar area, and a couple of slightly more formal talks. There were projected slides for the one, but the microphone failed, unfortunately. The theme of the night was gadgets and attendees were encouraged to bring along gadgets to show off and discuss, and they ranged from Terrance Eden's videocamera glasses to my first ever experience of an in-the-flesh slide rule.

I have a couple of video clips to upload at some point as my own gadget for discussion was the non-glasses version of the videocamera sold cheaply online as a "spycam" - a fantastic gadget at a very low price. The quality isn't fantastic but what can you expect for the cost? I'm thinking of getting hold of some of the glasses style versions to modify and turn into kit for larp events at some point.

Meanwhile, I particularly enjoyed Melinda's talk in which she addressed the question of what defines a gadget. Portability? Novelty? Tech? She skirted around all these possibilities, pointing out that it's almost indefinable, you know it when you see it. Although she didn't mention it during her own talk, she did prompt me to recognise that one of the features of a gadget is that it is unnecessary. It might be nice, it's probably a talking point but it's not something anybody needs as such. An iPad is a gadget, while a laptop is less so, particularly in the realm of work. A freezer isn't a gadget, it's seen as a home necessity, but for previous generations perhaps it was. Definitely food for thought.

I will be going along again, some of the faces were familiar from barcamp style events I'd been to and I got talking to a few more people from all over, despite ducking out early due to my stupidly early starts on my daily commute these days.

The next event is to be movie based, probably a couple of meetups, one to watch and one to discuss a film. Look out for them, coming soon.

More info can be found on the website: