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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Is TiVo done with streaming dongles? Not so fast

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Last year, one of the most interesting new streaming devices came not from Roku, Amazon, or Apple, but from TiVo.

The TiVo Stream 4K was an ambitious attempt to make streaming simpler, combining sources like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ into a single TV guide. For cord cutters, it was a welcome alternative to wading through a sea of app icons, and it also marked a new chapter for TiVo, which has been eager to break free of its legacy DVR business.

So I was bummed to read last weekend that TiVo might be abandoning the endeavor. Citing comments by the CEO of TiVo parent company Xperi, The Verge suggested that the Stream 4K could be TiVo’s last streaming dongle as it focused more on embedding its software in smart TVs. Several other sites quickly latched on with similar stories.

But according to a TiVo spokesperson, its foray into streaming hardware isn’t dead yet. The company says to expect new Android TV dongles from TiVo, and that it will continue to improve the Stream 4K “based on consumer needs and feedback.” More broadly, TiVo is “currently making hardware and will continue to do so.”

I hope that’s true, because while the TiVo Stream 4K wasn’t perfect, it still had a lot of potential.

Never say die

Jon Kirchner, the CEO of TiVo parent company Xperi, did suggest last week that the market for TiVo’s streaming dongles is narrower than it used to be.

In an earnings call, Kirchner noted that Google now offers its own universal streaming guide on Android TV devices—starting on the Chromecast with Google TV—which somewhat eclipses TiVo’s ability to offer an alternative. As such, Xperi was moving more aggressively to embed its software directly into smart TVs.

But even if the launch of Google TV was a gut punch, Kirchner never said that TiVo would stop making Android TV dongles. He even noted earlier in the call that TiVo Stream 4K device sales grew quarter-over-quarter, increasing the platform’s footprint. Given that TiVo monetizes its streaming devices through ads, it has plenty of incentive to keep producing and distributing them.

tivostream4kbrowsegenre Jared Newman / IDG

TiVo’s guide lets you see what’s on lots of different services from a single menu.

To that end, TiVo recently started providing the TiVo Stream 4K to small cable companies that want to offer a streaming solution to their internet-only customers. As TiVo explained to me last year, the hope is that those companies will share in the ad revenue that comes from services like TiVo Plus, a collection of free streaming channels that come pre-loaded on the dongle.

Besides, a foray into smart TV software isn’t a safe bet either. That field is already crowded with the likes of Roku (whose software ships on 38 percent of smart TVs sold in the United States), Amazon’s Fire TV Edition televisions, Samsung’s Smart TV platform, Vizio’s SmartCast, LG’s WebOS, and Google’s own Android TV platform, whose TVs have started to include the Google TV guide. Comcast has reportedly considered putting its streaming platform on smart TVs as well, and like TiVo, it has similar ideas about offering a universal guide to streaming services. 

In other words, TiVo is walking a tightrope with its streaming platform no matter what. Abandoning the crowded streaming device field just to focus on the even more crowded smart TV business doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The more streaming guides, the merrier

My glass-half-full outlook doesn’t come from any vested interested in TiVo, but rather from a desire to see streaming get simpler. With so many new services emerging over the past couple years—from Apple TV+ and Disney+ to Discovery+ and Peacock—it’s getting harder to keep track of them all, and having to jump from one app to the next is starting to feel outdated.

tivostream4kmyshows Jared Newman / IDG

Unlike the Chromecast with Google TV, the TiVo Stream 4K still includes Netflix originals in its guide.

The more companies trying to crack the aggregation nut, the better, and TiVo is already doing a pretty good job. It’s the only universal guide right now that covers the full Netflix catalog, and its “Recently Watched” row is great at helping you pick up where you left off on shows. By contrast, Google’s guide stopped including Netflix originals in December, and its “Continue Watching” row has patchy support among streaming services. The “TV” guide app on Apple TV devices, meanwhile, has never listed any Netflix content.

Of course, the TiVo Stream 4K still has room for improvement. Its live TV grid guide could be more customizable, and its on-demand menu is missing a few services that Google TV offers (Apple TV+ and Showtime among them). The hardware, meanwhile, could be snappier, and its remote would really benefit from dedicated fast forward and rewind buttons.

But that’s all the more reason for TiVo to keep iterating instead of walking away.

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