When I posted my remote control rant the other day, Doug Harris pointed me to this great Christopher Mascari post from 2008 detailing the history of TiVo’s remote. One anecdote:

The designers were adamant about keeping the remote’s button layout as simple as possible. But with the DVR’s numerous features, the designers needed to create lots of extra buttons. To keep things straight, each button needed to have a distinctive feel, giving the ability to control the remote without even looking at it, which Newby described as a “key Braille-ability” surprisingly helped by the “blank finger parking spots between keys” that were equally important.

I owned a (second generation) TiVo and I can confirm that it did indeed have a brilliant remote. Nearly everything about it felt perfect. So I could not be less shocked to learn how much thought and care went into the creation of that remote.

And naturally, TiVo’s big-name television manufacturing partners hated it.

Harry McCracken:

Like their previous collaboration, Qplay involves a box that plugs into a TV — a tiny $49 box this time, looking a bit like a skinny USB hard drive — and a service that helps you find stuff to watch. But instead of tapping broadcast TV, Qplay sifts through free videos available on the Internet, using social cues to find specific videos. And rather than giving you anything akin to TiVo’s iconic, peanut-shaped remote control, it lets you control your experience using an iPad app. You can watch videos on either the TV or the tablet.

Qplay aims to provide you with videos of interest without ever forcing you to hunt down a specific video. It organizes them into something it calls a Q — a continuous stream of items on a particular theme, which it strings together no matter where it found them. As Flipboard does with text content, Qplay gets some of these feeds by scanning Twitter accounts: For instance, there’s a Q made up of all the videos The Verge has tweeted, presumably making for good watching for tech enthusiasts. As you watch videos and tap the Like icon, the app uses that feedback to help it refine what it shows you.

To say a lot of folks have tried (and failed) to nail this experience would be an understatement. But I do believe they keep trying because there is something there. It’s no longer that the web lacks good video content — there is now plenty go great content — but the presentation still lags far behind the lean-back experience of television. So I think Qplay is aiming in the right direction.

Having to constantly think about what you want to watch next in all but the most lightweight way (changing the channel) in a non-starter. As is using your entire tablet screen to show content, meaning you can’t do anything else. The river of curated content streamed to your television seems like the right approach as long as the curation is truly excellent. In a way, HBO is simply the best curator in the world right now. The question is when that world changes.

Content, Content, Content

Intel just sold its unreleased television service to Verizon. TiVo just shuttered its hardware business. Google TV flopped. Boxee sold out. Aereo keeps getting sued. Roku keeps trying new things. Netflix keeps spending wildly. Amazon more wildly still. And where on Earth is that Apple television?

Where’s the future of television we’ve been promised every year for the past decade? It always seems to be coming “next year”. And I have a hunch that 2014 may be no different.

Here’s the thing: there isn’t actually a technology problem in this space. That is, while the current solutions offered by the cable providers mainly suck, they suck because they can suck. Big Cable is holding all the cards. And they know it.

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Roberto Baldwin on the just-sold Intel television service:

Pricing would be on par with what satellite and cable offered; after all, the networks weren’t going to give the up-and-comer any sort of deal. But what Intel Media was counting on was an experience. Like TiVo, it was a quality play, a service that was better than what was already out there. TiVo customers usually pay a premium to use its box instead of the no-name DVR or satellite box offered by pay-TV providers. On Cue was going to take that even further: It was going to out-Tivo Tivo. And the box was ready to go.

Tivo, we’re-shutting-down-our-hardware-business-Tivo? Yes, that one.1

Newsflash: this is not an easy business to be in. The only thing that matters are the content deals. Without them, your service is going to be DOA. Did Intel actually have those? The article could not make that any less clear. My guess is “no”.

So yes, Intel’s box could have been Tivo. Which is to say, ultimately, a failure.2

  1. Which is odd, since the same person was the author of both articles on the same day

  2. And I loved Tivo.