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The Future of the DVR

It’s hard to believe that digital video recorder technology only hit the mainstream within the last five years. I was blessed with a retail DVR back in 2001 (a much-beloved, single-tuner SD ReplayTV), and then upgraded to a Motorola dual-tuner HD DVR with Comcast service more recently. Suffice it to say, between my personal and professional experience over the years, I’ve had plenty of cause to consider the evolution of DVRs, and where they’ll take us in the future. Here are my thoughts.


I can distill the functions of a DVR into three things: the ability to record and store content, the ability to control the point of playback, and the ability to skip through commercials. We’ve been able to record and store TV since the advent of VCRs, but DVRs made the process significantly easier and much more satisfying. That’s not going to change. Likewise, DVRs made it easier to control where within a program the viewer could start watching, i.e. at the beginning, at the start of a certain scene, or back thirty seconds for a quick TV replay. Fundamentally that’s also not going to change, though fast forwarding may be disabled in certain instances.

That brings us to commercial skipping. As DVRs have grown more popular, the ad industry has grown increasingly concerned about the effectiveness of its TV buys. As a result, there are more and more experiments taking place to block commercial skipping. This is where I think we’ll see real change with DVRs in the future. Not all commercial skipping will be blocked, but there will be more options in place for content owners/providers who wish to enable blocking. Think about commercials on Hulu. While many fewer than the commercials on broadcast TV, ads on Hulu cannot be skipped. IP delivery makes blocking the commercial skip easier. And the TV industry as a whole is progressing toward IP.


The basic functions of a DVR are well-established, but the features that get added on to the home set-top keep growing. The set-top is used in various cases as an on-demand portal, a home networking hub, and a platform for Internet media and social networking. All of this is because the processing power of set-tops is increasing rapidly. They are, for all intents and purposes, niche computers. At this level, DVRs will simply keep improving. VOD access is great, but why not add more content from more places? It’s already starting to happen. Why not make media transferable between devices? That’s also slowly starting to roll out. And why not make the TV experience more interactive? Yes, that’s happening too.

You might consider all of these additions just feature creep for the stand-alone DVR, but the counterargument is that we simply need to improve the interface to support what DVRs can and are becoming. Operators know this to be true.


Finally, there’s the issue of form. Within Motorola’s product line, the set-top form factor has continued to get sleeker and smaller. However, some would say we should do away with the hardware altogether. In theory that might work, but in practice it won’t, at least not for a very long time. The upgrade cycle on a set-top is a lot faster than it is on a large-screen TV that might have a DVR feature embedded within it. (Not to mention, the DVR TV doesn’t yet exist on the commercial market, at least as far as I know) And if you want to argue that all upgrades can be done via software, then take a look at the computer market. We’re still buying new computers even though we get regular software updates as well. Last but not least, we are not starting up the television ecosystem from scratch. Service providers, networks, and business models built around the DVR set-top already exist. Even with all else being equal, that doesn’t change overnight. Software-based DVRs do and will continue to exist. But DVR hardware isn’t going anywhere.


DVRs will continue to evolve in ways that consumers like and don’t like; in ways that will continue to support industry growth and the big business of content production and distribution; in ways we can’t envision now, but might in just a year’s time. Of course that’s just one person’s opinion. Stay tuned.

11 Responses

  1. […] this year, and at least one insider I know claims the feature is one its way very soon. The future of the DVR may still be uncertain, but remote scheduling appears to be headed toward the standard-feature […]

  2. […] The Future of the DVR DVRs will continue to evolve in ways that consumers like and don’t like; in ways that will continue to support industry growth and the big business of content production and distribution; in ways we can’t envision now, but might in just a year’s time. The Wild Wild West of TV Everywhere As far as ad measurement is concerned, Quincy Smith from CBS Interactive had the ultimate statement of irony. The Web is supposed to be infinitely quantifiable, but we still don’t know how to equate to the traditional TV standards of reach and frequency. […]

  3. Not sure I see it that way. I do agree that as the Tivo fades into the background, media companies would love to disable ad skipping, and certainly there will be many attempts to implement this. Cable companies had better move VERY slowly with this or users may well move to Tivo boxes instead.

    However, IP delivery has virtually nothing to do with whether ad skipping can be disabled or not. The streams that are recorded to the hard drive are exactly the same in both cases–the difference is in the transport protocol that doesn’t make it to the hard drive. The flags in the stream that would be used to signal the DVR to suppress skipping would be identical in both cases.

    Personally I think the major change with IP delivery is that we are no longer limited to the cable company offerings. I think there is going to be an explosion in over the top options, even beyond what we are seeing now–Apple TV, XBox, Roku, Netflix, Amazon On Demand, Vudu, etc. These are fringe things right now, but as people become more comfortable with Hulu et al, and as home broadband speeds ratchet up, this will become much more common.

    Which may actually presage the real change that is coming. In the long run there won’t be a TV “schedule” at all. There will just be video on demand whenever you want it. Whether it is owned by the cable company, and delivered thru its box, or delivered via a third party box or simply via your PC, doesn’t really matter. We’re clearly moving in this direction.

    The near term move will be from cable company rented DVRs with hard disks etc to company hosted DVR services using ever cheaper STBs. Once we move to this “cloud based service” model for STBs, I think you WILL see the STB standardize, commoditize, and in fact disappear and be integrated into the TV. It certainly will take a long time for this to happen, but it is inevitable.

  4. I think you’ll see the basic set-top standardized, but I’m not convinced there won’t still be a range of advanced hardware options for some time to come.

    Regarding the over-the-top services, I agree there will continue to be more options in the near future, but ultimately this is not a revenue model that is going to sustain big-production TV content… unless and until you move to a consolidated subscription service online that will also fully pay for the cost of IP transport. And regarding the idea of all TV being on-demand, I’m still not sure I entirely buy that. There’s still something to be said for the channel-up-channel-down browsing experience.

  5. […] become increasingly popular with consumers in the latter half of this decade. Set-tops brought digital video recording to the mass market. They made in-home TV networking possible. They’ve enabled the growth of Video on Demand […]

  6. I read that he that he wanted do a Neighbours appearence! :O. Not sure how true this is, has anyone else heard it? There’s a part of me that kind of wishes this is not true lol.

  7. We should thank you for hosting such a terrific blog. Your website happens to be not only informative but also very artistic too. There are only few professionals who are capable of write technical articles that creatively. I are on the lookout for information regarding this subject. I have looked through many websites to acquire knowhow regarding this.Keep me informed when you write more on the subject !!

  8. […] have long predicted the death of the set-top, and yet it’s alive and kicking. As part of today’s quarterly earnings presentation, […]

  9. The first company to develop a completely ad-blocking DVR that provides viewers commercial free programs will rule the DVR market.

    • Commercials are a form of communication.
      People like good commercials. Some people search out the superbowl commercials because they are usually good.

      The company that makes a DVR to enhance the experience of watching TV and watching commercials will rule the market.

  10. […] The big question for the coming years is what actually constitutes a set-top? Do DTAs count today? Will gateway devices count in the future? The numbers could skew significantly based on what products are included in analysis. Today In-Stat categorizes set-tops as cable, satellite, IPTV, and terrestrial. In a few years, we may see those categories re-defined. Not set-top death, but set-top evolution. […]

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