Tivo Intros New Boxes

Last night, looking to staunch the loss of subscribers and fend off challenges from Internet connected TVs, Blu-ray players and other set-top boxes, Tivo introduced an overhauled DVR designed to aggregate video content, whether it be from YouTube or NBC.

Unfortunately, while the new Premiere DVR has some nice features, it doesn't offer the sort of groundbreaking applications it needs to attract new subscribers and get viewers to shell out $300 for a new machine. I say "unfortunately" because Tivo is one of those products that those of us who cover the industry wish would succeed. But with each successive release, we have to grudgingly admit that it is too expensive and too cumbersome to ever really catch on. (Alas, even the use of the phrase "Tivo it" is on the wane.)

Nevertheless, current Tivo subscribers may want to upgrade to the Premiere box. The new software neatly integrates movie download services such as Amazon and Blockbuster with streaming offerings from Netflix and Web-based video from sites like YouTube. It will play Adobe Flash videos, a nod to the de facto standard online. It will not work with Hulu, so the networks apparently are still not ready to make the leap from online to on TV. (One wonders if they may wait too long, given that boxes like Tivo's and televisions from Panasonic, Vizio, Toshiba, Sony, LG, etc., are already making an end-run around cable companies and their video-on-demand businesses. After the cable companies succumb, the broadcast networks will be next unless they can quickly make the Web work for them as a path.)

Tivo did not announce any social networking applications, although the company said it wants to encourage other companies to write applications for its product. (Who doesn't? Now that Apple has figured out how to copy Microsoft's 20-year-old business model, everyone else wants to do it, too.) So there may be Facebook and Twitter hooks yet.

Alas, there was no announcement of Tivo's technology being introduced on other consumer electronics products. That's the holy grail the company truly seeks…and truly needs.


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Tivo Set to Make Announcement

Tivo is about to announce….something today. Some of my sources have hinted at the addition of more social networking hooks (translation: Twitter and Facebook integration, a.k.a. what I'm watching now via my iPhone). Others have speculated about rumors of new hardware.

But even if both rumors are true, it may be a case of too little, too late. Terabyte drives and Facebook feeds probably won't be enough to save the company. Subscriptions and set-top box sales have been flagging. Part of the slide has been due to cheaper cable company DVRs, but that's not the biggest problem for Tivo looming on the horizon.

Most new televisions coming out this year will have Internet access and on-screen services such as Netflix, Vudu (now Walmart), Amazon, Blockbuster, Twitter, etc., built in. No more separate box. No more onerous cable company video-on-demand fees. Indeed, one of Vizio's new models includes limitless DVR functionality (granted, one has to do a little tinkering to make it work).

So what could rejuvenate Tivo? A deal with a major consumer electronics company to be included on TVs and Blu-ray players would certainly help (why let Netflix hog all the glory?). Or, the inclusion of Hulu and others on the boxes (a smart move since Boxee and Sony's PlayStation 3 have been effectively cut out of that loop…and given Tivo's investors this is a distinct possibility). Tivo could also hitch its wagon to AppleTV but that ship seems to have already sunk.

For our assessment following Tivo's announcement, check in here. Same Bat time, same Bat channel.


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Gadget Sites Could Be Useful…But Aren’t

There are plenty of gadget-happy, marketing types out there who want to make money off your personal information–namely, what gadgets you own and what gadgets you want to buy. Such sites, like  ProductWiki and the me-too site gdgt, have failed miserably, but there is a way to make them successful.

The reason these sites have languished is that their developers want to sit back and have us do all the work. Based on so-called "user-generated content" (translation: completely unreliable speculation and rumor), the sites purport to offer useful tips and tricks. The truth is, what it really means amounts to is a behavioral marketing experiment in which visitors are asked to input all the information but are offered little in return. For example, the search engine at gdgt makes it impossible to find any products and the advice forums are generally bereft of helpful advice (though they can be an ideal breeding ground for hackers who want to lead the gadget-lorn astray).

However, with some work, these sites could succeed if they offered two critical pieces of information:
1.- Links to the latest drivers and software for all the products.
2. – Recall information for all the products.

The first idea is obvious: List all your gadgets at the site and in return we'll send you notifications every time there's a software or driver update (or not, if you so choose). Consumers are tired of having 20 "update alert" buttons across the bottom of the screen (knock it off, Adobe). A one-stop shop for this stuff would be useful, and sites like gdgt could put this information together with little cost and effort.

The second idea is courtesy of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who recently proposed legislation that would establish a single list of all product recalls to be posted on the Web. It's a great idea that would help busy families and alert them when dangerous child seats, cribs, lead-encrusted toys, or other devices are subject to recalls. It's also something sites like gdgt could do now…and offer visitors something of real value

One word of warning for those who visit gdgt: I recommend skipping the Facebook feature. It's part of a (hopefully short-lived) marketing trend of tracking all of your behavior online. You don't want that, and the security and privacy concerns are far too serious to ignore.


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Google Calls for Help

Google has reportedly sought out the assistance of the National Security Agency (NSA) in tracking down the hackers who recently infiltrated the search engine giant's e-mail and business accounts. Although this sounds like an unusual step, it's representative of a rather common–although generally not divulged–form of collaboration between private computer security firms and the NSA that has gone on for years.

Security researchers have mentioned such cooperative efforts to me in the past, so it hardly seems newsworthy now. However, the ongoing digital skirmishes do seem to be increasing. Moreover, the current economic climate (cloudy with a chance of tsunami) has raised the stakes. In other words, it's all fun and asymmetric warfare until someone loses their shirt.

For more on the international cyber shenanigans, read "CyberSpy vs. CyberSpy."

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Google, China, and Profits

The insulated Silicon Valley online culture that believes information has got to be free has been struggling with the reality that many authorities in other parts of the world believe the contrary (and are willing to use force to assert those beliefs). After learning that cooperation can put innocent people in jail, Yahoo left China, for example, while Google has struggled to remain there. 

Recent news of Google's discovery that Chinese hackers have broken into several dissidents' Gmail accounts (and U.S. business accounts) has provoked Google to do an about face. (The universally held assumption being that the Chinese government itself was responsible for the attacks.) Not lost in translation: The company will no longer allow its searches to be censored in China and if the government there insists on doing so, Google will pack up its (admittedly small) operations and leave.

But is the business argument that Google should stay in China valid? 

Joe Schoendorf, for example, a partner at Accel Partners, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, "I don’t think anybody is going to run away from China. Google has Microsoft on the ropes, and China is arguably the world’s most important market outside of the U.S. You don’t walk away from that on principle.”

Investment advisors and financial analysts are paid to keep their eyes on a single target (money), which is as it should be. However, in this case their argument that Google cannot depart the Chinese market because of the money the company would forgo is partly based on a false premise, namely that anyone with enough money (and a large enough population) can innovate and create. In other words, if you don't participate in the Chinese market, you will eventually be eclipsed by engineers and companies working there (or by other American companies willing to work there). Of course, this is ostensibly false. (To wit, where are those magnificent Chinese electric cars that can travel hundreds of miles on a single charge? Where are those staggeringly fast microprocessors that can predict the weather? Where are those advances in tomography, air travel, cancer research, etc.? Innovations come from innovators, not large or small companies.)

The point is, without knowledge and information, innovation and thus the ability to compete is stymied. And Google represents access to information (the knowledge part is debatable). If Google continues to be censored by the Chinese government and then follows through on its threat to leave the country, the Chinese people will be the losers, not Google.

So the argument for staying can only rest on humanitarian grounds, i.e.. leave, and you're punishing the people, not the oppressive government. It's a tricky diplomatic dance whose choreography is based on the idea that participating in the censored Chinese market provides at least some information and a degree of openness to people in China. And some is better than none, right?

Not necessarily. The problem is not China's cyberspies. The problem is the presentation of "some" information under the pretext that it's knowledge. Put another way, if you're not providing a complete picture of what's available, then you're providing a deceptive picture. So if Google is now unable to "negotiate" a way to deliver uncensored search results in China, it should shutter google.cn

It may also be time for other companies to reassess their ties to the Chinese market. The computer incursions at Google were aimed not only at human rights activists; they were mainly aimed at stealing information from dozens of companies. Not exactly the kind of business partner one would hope for, and certainly not the type that will help you turn a profit.

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Last-Minute Tech Gifts

There's still a little time left to pick up some high-tech stocking stuffers (or scour the sales bins for gifts you didn't get). For the latest in Bluetooth headsets and the best games of the year, catch my latest Tech Tuesday clip. (Oh, and don't forget about The Beatles: Rock Band; I ran out of time, but it's a great game and a great deal if you already have the "instruments"–the software is just $50

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Internet Radios Begin to Make Waves

JQ on Internet Radios

Cricket matches from the U.K. Trip hop from Iceland. Classic rock from Canada. (Canada?) You are no longer limited to local radio stations–or even satellite radio for that matter.

Internet-based streams from stations all over the world are available on radios that can connect to your stereo, sit on the kitchen counter or snuggle up on your bedside table. Ranging in price from $130 to over $700, Internet radios offer a variety of features. Some can play music from your computer's hard drive; some can tune in local FM stations; and some will connect you to online services like Rhapsody and Pandora.

For a quick rundown of several of the newest models, watch JQ's segment on Fox Business.


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