One of the pioneers of the DVR business, ReplayTV has had a turbulent existence thus far and it continues with their sale to DirecTV on Thursday (story: Guardian | Hollywood Reporter). As a long time ReplayTV fan, this is not good news.
I first started using ReplayTV products while they were owned by Sonic Blue. Sonic Blue appeared to have the wherewithal to make ReplayTV successful and at the time, TiVo and ReplayTV were always sold and mentioned as peers. Unfortunately, some of ReplayTV’s greatest technical features, Commercial Skipping and Internet Video Sharing, became incendieary issues for the entertainment business and ReplayTV was nearly sued out of existence. TiVo, with their shorter name, cute icon, and lack of incendiary features didn’t receive nearly the litigious attention.
And in fact, Sonic Blue did cease to exist as a consequence of these lawsuits. Sonic Blue sold off their assets including the ReplayTV brand to D&M Holdings, a part of Denon. This initially appeared to be a positive thing because Denon produces some decent consumer electronics equipment. Denon used the ReplayTV software to produce a prototype media server shown at an electronics show years ago. It was a home theater receiver and DVR all thrown in together. It seemed aimed to compete with the likes of Kaleidescape but Denon shelved the project. For a while, it seemed that Denon did nothing with the brand and was only interested in the ongoing monthly fees collected from existing ReplayTV customers.
Most recently, the ReplayTV brand showed a few signs of life when they debuted new software for the PC. But the ReplayTV software failed to offer anything new and exciting so as you might expect in the crowded market of DVR software, it failed to make a dent. Then, ReplayTV released a new piece of hardware. Us ReplayTV fans were all excited that there was new hardware on the way (the beginning of the new ReplayTV!?) until we saw what it was – simply a rebranded TV tuner USB stick that worked with DVR PC software. Apparently ReplayTV fans weren’t the only ones disappointed. It seems that the lack of success of either of these two efforts got Denon to decide to unload the business.
Fortunately, through it all, ReplayTV DVRs kept working and to this day, my ReplayTV is still showing off its Commercial Advance and its Internet Video Sharing (Poopli rocks!) to the much shinier but way stupider Motorola DVR provided by Comcast that it sits next to. Why would I get a dummy cable company DVR at all? Because ReplayTV came out before the advent of HD and because there’s no other practical way to record HD than with the cable company DVR. (Apple TV has limitations and PC software isn’t Home Theater ready yet – that’s a topic for future blog post(s).)
And I am not alone in keeping my Standard Def ReplayTV working even though I have an HD DVR now. You can bet that an overwhelming majority of us ReplayTV faithful continue to enjoy our SDTV viewing experience, despite the lower resolution, because of the superior product ReplayTV created way back when. It’s a certainty that if the product team that produced the ReplayTV 4000 and 5000 series boxes were to produce a new HD DVR, all the ReplayTV faithful would flock to stores to buy it. If the brains of the ReplayTV could be merged with HD and cable cards, there’d be no need for my split DVR setup right now.
But that dream seems ever less likely to be realized now that DirecTV scooped up ReplayTV. I never had any inside knowledge about the ReplayTV product team but I’m sure they have long since moved on to other companies. And even if they were still part of the ReplayTV business last week, they aren’t this week. DirecTV is apparently only interested in ReplayTV for their patents and basic right to produce a DVR. DirecTV seems likely to either use a couple of the features of ReplayTV in their boxes or maybe even use nothing other than the ReplayTV right to produce a DVR. DirecTV didn’t even buy the part of the business that services existing customers so Denon still has that – for now. It seems like a matter of only a year or two before Denon bails on that too.
Bit by bit, the greatness that ReplayTV was and could have been again is being dismantled into pieces that cannot be rebuilt. Tragic.