You’d think that the electronics industry would jump on any horse that was a clearly superior technology and ride it ’till it dropped. This is a brief synopsis (by geek standards) of why that didn’t happen to one the best gadgets ever, and why that was such a truly significant and far reaching harbinger of things to come.

Replay Networks won the CES 1999 `Best of Show` award with an item that seemed a clear hit, and it was, with everyone who bought one. It was the original DVR. This goodie could automatically cut out commercials (with 85% accuracy) of recorded shows, jump forward thirty seconds or back seven seconds, had a simple interface, could record forty hours (with mods, 500 hours!) without tape and had the most desirable feature of all … and that’s exactly what caused it to stop production … the ability to share recorded shows via the internet (Replay to Replay only). With special free software, you could even pull shows off of it and save them on a DVD. It’s not that the ReplayTV (RTV) was a pirating device, it allowed you to connect together RTV’s in a home and watch the one in the den from your bedroom unit … only for the third time since the invention of television (after the VCR and remote control), a genuinely helpful video accessory had arrived. It also allowed the RTV of a friend to send a show to your RTV … so if you missed the “big game” your buddy recorded, a simple entry told his Replay what to do. But the networks considered the public to be thieves for watching the very shows that they aired at a different time or day. They had exactly the same argument when the VCR came out, and everyone is aware of how that argument worked out in the courts. You’d assume that it’d be a lost cause trying to stop the Replay, but the media giants were successful with the same old, stale argument. And not a single other company came to their aid. The result is the neutered TiVo … still clearly inferior in operation, despite years of playing “catch-up”. So here we are with giant, flat HD sets on the verge of 3D and we are still using technology that was outdated ten years ago. And there is no change anywhere is sight … because the networks consider the viewing public to be little more than criminals, no electronics company will pick up where Replay production stopped for fear of being sued or having to fund a legal case to force the issue to the Supreme Court.

Technology affords us to crudely duplicate the RTV, but the elegant design and ease of use is gone. If you’re not sufficiently geeky to handle internal computer mods, transcode video formats, manipulate video editing software and choose the correct method of exchange on the internet … you’re out of luck. The 5000 series RTVs are so treasured amongst video geeks, that an almost ten year old unit will actually bring more than the original cost on Ebay!

You might ask why this happened and why this matters. The sole reason is greed. If the media giants can stop you from sharing “CSI Las Vegas”, their bean counters say they might make an additional fifty bucks on DVD sales. And this “Gordon Gekko-like” greed has had some mighty odd repercussions for the consumer. Some companies who were true innovators, like Sony, have lost all ability to invent after the death of their founder. So by acquiring movie studios and such, they can stifle their competitor’s advances also. Sony clearly no longer has the best TVs, best MP3 player, best video camera or best of anything, in any sector of electronics. Its reliability was legend, and that too is long gone. So like any failing company, it will do anything it can to stay afloat … but in the bizarre case of Sony, it will do so by damaging the very industry it was once the leader of. The new and very hungry 800lb gorilla in the market abandoned by Sony … is Samsung. (Although LG and Toshiba are now seriously nipping at their rear of Samsung) A walk through Samsung’s mega booth at the 2010 CES really makes the point how far Sony has fallen.

As I look down the road I can see only two paths ahead for the electronics industry. In one, companies like Sony will install a virtual coin slot in the side of every piece of electronics you use, so to speak, forcing payment from you for all but the most basic viewing. Think I may be exaggerating? Look at the monthly subscription fees for TiVo, for HD on cable and satellite, for even the most basic cable which has only the free local channels, extra cable boxes because media suppliers won’t adapt a standard encryption method and even things like the increased cost of DVD players due to the requirement of additional hardware to performing decoding and region locking. Supporting the death of analog TV that now requires the purchase of a special decoder, while knowing full well that the new digital signal will not reach the majority of over-the-air viewers, mandating a cable/satellite subscription… even the internet site “Hulu”, is going to be subscription based … the list goes on and on. The vast majority of these items that you are charged for, actually have no cost (or so small as not to matter) for the media suppliers. But, they can only be profitable by stifling innovation and forcing a stagnation of technology. That’s an odd situation isn’t it? They have to cripple/kill future technology, by using obsolete technology to make a buck. I can safely assume they’d take away the mute button on TV remotes if they thought it would force us to listen to the commercials.

On the flip side, you have either laws or a court case that breaks the technology logjam. There is no other way for an immediate change. The free market is being controlled and perverted by a handful of media types, lobbyists and politicians … so it becomes a daunting task. If the impossible were to happen and the public were to revolt en mass, then yes, there would be change. But the fact of the matter is this: most people are technology illiterates and therefore, easy prey.

Here’s what could happen should things take a step forward. For instance, imagine an “Apple TV” connected to a fancy HD set using an operational standard (no more cable boxes) and with full connectivity on the internet. Miss a show? … go to a central server and stream it for immediate viewing, or download it directly to your portable device (iPod, Zune, cellular phone, etc.) in the correct format automatically. The revenue loss to the networks is zero … in fact it increases their viewing public and therefore their ad revenue. And unlike normal TV, it’s measurable and extremely accurate as to how many new viewers they have garnered. (Then again, it’s a little hard for the networks to lie about the number of viewers to advertisers, when it can be so precisely measured.) How about cars, with the now cheap LCD screens, receiving live TV via a standard car antenna for its backseat passengers … along with the premium channels (like HBO) that you may be already subscribing to at your home. That is already possible using current technology. In fact I saw something somewhat similar at CES this year … and guess what … it had a fee for even the free over-the-air channels.

There may be one, very tiny additional possibility … that some innovator will come up with a way to satisfy the antique copyright laws and still give us what we really want … even if the bulk of the consumers don’t know what that is yet. But that wouldn’t be a genuine fix, would it?

Change is coming at some point … even with all the issues I stated previously, technology simply can’t be held back indefinitely … when the resources begin to dry up from bilking the consumer, the dam will break and the resulting flood will change permanently how we interact with technology.


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