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.