Technologizer

A Requiem for ReplayTV

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For this week’s Technologizer column over at TIME.com, I wrote about how the current version of TiVo stacks up against Google TV, Apple TV, and other Internet-only newcomers. (Short version: It retains some cool advantages, but I’m rooting for TiVo to release some all-new boxes that take on the personal-TV whippersnappers more directly.)

Thinking about TiVo got me thinking about ReplayTV, the company which was its archrival back at the dawn of the DVR. My first DVR was a Replay–I got it in, oh, late 2000 or thereabouts–and there was a time when I was both a fanatical Replay booster and a nearly-as-fanatical TiVo skeptic. It may have been the last time I was a fanboy or a hater of anything of anything in the world of technology; today, I like to think of myself as being proudly agnostic.

When I retired my Replay and switched to TiVo a few years later, it was emotionally wrenching. It should have been an easy call, since it was clear that Replay had become the Beta of the DVR wars, and TiVo its VHS. (Replay, which went through an amazing number of owners during its brief life, died altogether shortly thereafter.) But I felt dirty.

What made Replay so lovable? In part, it was an interface that was, for its time, better than TiVo’s in some key respects. (Replay’s fonts were easy to read across a living room even on a fuzzy standard-def TV; TiVo’s, at least for me, weren’t.) But Replay was also the most innovative TV box of its time. It was the first to get a network connection, for instance, ridding itself of the need to download TV listings in the middle of the night over dial-up.

Replay’s coolest feature helped hasten its death: Its 4000 models could skip commercials. I don’t mean that they let you press a button to fast forward–they could detect commercial breaks and zip past them with no human intervention.

It didn’t work perfectly. Sometimes the box played commercials by mistake; other times it whacked out chunks of programs. And the seams its surgery left weren’t exactly seamless. I still can’t believe that Sonic Blue (the company that owned Replay when the 4000 came out) had the guts to introduce a feature guaranteed to drive Hollywood absolutely bonkers, though.

Of course, it may have regretted its boldness: More than two dozen entertainment companies¬†sued over the 4000’s commercial-skipping technology. The case was eventually thrown out of court, but when the ReplayTV 5000 shipped, the feature was gone–and before too much time had passed, Replay was gone, period.

TiVo–which always played Gallant to Replay’s Goofus–was smart enough not to provoke any deep-pocketed media companies. The closest it comes to commercial skipping is a feature that lets you jump forward thirty seconds at a time, and even that is an easter egg, not a publicized feature. Its relative timidity probably explains in part why it’s in business today and Replay isn’t.

Postscript: Anthony Wood, the founder of ReplayTV, is still very much around. He’s the founder of Roku, the Internet-TV pioneer that’s now doing battle with Apple, Google, Logitech, and other tech behemoths. Roku has some of Replay’s scrappy DNA; I’d love to see it flourish even as the big guys muscle in on its territory.

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