The Comcast-Motorola-TiVo Is Here (Almost)

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Includes: CMCSA, GOOG, TIVO
by: Dave Zatz

In a relationship announced nearly two years ago, the Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) TiVo (NASDAQ:TIVO) is just about here and on public display at CES. (Rumor has it, they showed back-room demos for VIPs at the 2006 CES.) There were at least three Motorola (MOT) 6412 units running TiVo software in the booth. Not only did I poke around on them, I had the chance to sit down privately with David Sanford, VP of Product Management in the Service Provider group — one of the guys behind this custom build. In addition to the obvious functionality questions, I was particularly interested in learning of the deployment mechanics and the technologies in play.
comcast-tivo

Deployment

The Comcast-Moto-TiVo is already in trials, and deployment is slated to begin this Spring. The roll-out will be managed by Comcast — they set the schedule within their various markets. (As in: not all regions are likely to get the TiVo option simultaneously.) While there are no details on monthly pricing yet (which I assume could vary by market), David tells me Comcast really wants to get this product out there and is planning to charge only a “modest fee.” (I’ll take a stab and guess a $5 - $10 increase over current DVR rental fees would cover licensing and allow Comcast to make a few bucks without sticker shocking customers.)
comcast-tivo-remote
So here’s how it works: you let Comcast know you want to upgrade your DVR to TiVo, they flip a switch, and your current Motorola box (6412 or 3412) downloads the software. Reboot, and voilà you have TiVo — with prior settings and recordings preserved and no truck roll required. Your current crappy Comcast remote will control the TiVo software, but as part of the upgrade Comcast will mail you a custom Comcast TiVo remote (with new OnDemand, A, B, C, and D buttons).

Technology

The new TiVo software is written entirely in Java and runs on TV Navigator middleware, a precursor/subset of OCAP. With the FCC requiring new Comcast cable box deployments to include separable security (i.e. CableCARD) as of 7/07, I wondered if TiVo has gotten their hands on the new Motorola hardware (also on display at CES, in the Moto booth). It doesn’t sound like they have, but David feels confident their software will easily port to a variety of platforms. Good thing, since they also want to support Scientific Atlanta hardware down the road. TiVo will have DOCSIS/DSG servers running on the head-end.

I’m waiting to hear back on the status of the Firewire port.The FCC mandates all HD boxes deployed after 7/1/05 have active, functional Firewire. What does that get us on this new software?

Functionality
comcast-tivo-central
For the most part the new software acts like a TiVo, sounds like a TiVo, and looks a lot like a TiVo, but there are some differences which could be somewhat disorienting/disconcerting for existing TiVo aficionados. For example there are no TiVo animations on the new backgrounds, the channel banner is quite different (I don’t care for it), and the Live Guide is not available (yet). On the other hand the new color-coded grid guide looks great and includes picture-in-picture (PIP can be paused!), plus the software includes advanced search functionality not yet available on the stand alone TiVo models. Further, both search and Wishlist scan OnDemand programming which will be quite useful.

comcast-tivo-ondemand
I don’t think it will come as any surprise to those of who think about such things that networking is not active in the initial release: no Home Media Options (as in no sharing photos & music from computer, no multi-room viewing) and no Internet-based services such as TiVoCast or Yahoo (YHOO) Weather. Whether or not these features are ultimately developed and deployed is up to Comcast. And speaking of Comcast, I get the sense that the GUI modifications (channel banner for example) were made at their request.

Thoughts

First, as with the Series3: Better late, than never! The interface and functionality are somewhat different (having both pros and cons) than the current stand alone TiVo software and this will be the cheapest possible way to get a HD TiVo experience. The S3 has better hardware, larger storage (which can be expanded), and can be networked. BUT the Comcast TiVo will make sense for most folks (who are price sensitive and live in Comcast areas that provide Moto hardware).

So what will I do? I haven’t bought a second Series3. While I do like the one in the den, I can’t justify purchasing a second one at the current price ($650ish, plus monthly service fees) — especially without multi-room viewing, TiVoToGo, and eSATA storage functionality. So a Comcast-Motorola-TiVo will be a nice solution for our bedroom TV.

There’s probably also a story here about TiVo partnering with the likes of Comcast (and Cox) and developing Java software being necessary for their long-term financial well-being, even if stand-alone sales/service are partially cannibalized. But I’m tired, so maybe we’ll save this for my financial guru.