Thursday, November 27, 2008

TiVo tanks, Apple breaks third-party apps

Earlier this week, TV By the Numbers reported that TiVo lost 163,000 subscribers in October, and the company has lost subscribers almost every month this year. In its most recent quarter, TiVo only sold an average of less than 500 DVRs a day. The company would have lost money in the quarter had it not received a one-time payment of $105 million from Echostar for patent violations. It's pretty clear that TiVo's situation is getting dire, and the company is not going to survive in the standalone PVR business for much longer.

At about the same time, Blockbuster got into the set-top box business, as I've written about earlier. Also, Apple released a new version of software for its AppleTV STB, which broke third-party software running on those devices, including Boxee, media center software for Linux and OSX that supports Hulu, CBS, Comedy Central, CNN and many other Internet media sites. Boxee was back up and running on the AppleTV a day later.

Is there really a market for third-party set-top boxes? By and large, the answer is "no," although the Roku Netflix player seems to be selling well. What I'd really like to see is a set-top box that's open and that supports multiple services. That rules out Apple and Vudu. You shouldn't have to pay a monthly subscriber fee to use the box, so that rules out TiVo, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and, at least for now, Roku. Blockbuster's new box is still a question mark--there's no monthly fee, and the box, built by 2Wire, runs Linux, but it's unclear if Blockbuster will allow Boxee and similar applications to run on it.

In my opinion, it would be a brilliant move if Blockbuster let Boxee, as well as others, run their software on its box without a long approval process or the fear that the third-party applications would be deliberately broken by Blockbuster. In one step, Blockbuster's offering would move from a me-too product to a market leader.

Experience has proven that consumers simply don't want multiple set-top boxes. Given the choice between a cable operator-provided PVR and a TiVo, they've chosen the cable operators' offerings in droves. This market is dead unless the players start seriously rethinking their strategies to adapt to consumer needs.

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