Michael Gartenberg of Jupiter Research recently raved about Windows Media Center XP over TiVo mainly due to the ability to transfer recorded shows to his laptop. Even though Media Center XP has felt a little buggy to me and I've enjoyed years of TiVo, I would agree with Gartenberg that watching shows on other devices is indeed a killer feature. This got me to thinking about TiVo's ability to move shows around to other devices, or the almost complete lack thereof.
I've been reading the TiVo community boards for a couple years now, and early pioneered hacks weren't often welcomed. I can remember when someone started doing the very earliest hack to allow an ethernet card to be attached. Many on the TiVo boards assumed the ethernet connection was to either extract movies for pirating on the internet, or for downloading show data from the internet instead of paying TiVo. Granted, the TiVo community does have some no-no subjects, and I can completely understand why they don't like anyone talking about getting around their $12.95 monthly service charge, but oftentimes other basic hacking projects fall into the "this is taboo to talk about" category. Right now on the boards, video extraction is a taboo subject.
If you look at the ethernet hacking history, eventually after a few months of tinkering people figured out a stable way to get a TiVo on a network and then they hacked in support for talking to their TiVo. Many asked for ethernet support because the modems would often fry and in many cases an installation of a phone line nearby was required. Eventually TiVo opened up a way for people to update online and now from TiVo's own site they encourage users to buy a wired or wireless ethernet device (on TiVo's end, the cost of maintaining modem banks is high, whereas sending data over ethernet is almost free).
What I find frustrating is the kneejerk response of some community members and I suspect, TiVo employees (especially the former TV exec they have as president now) whenever a hacking project like this starts. People often assume the motivation for hacking is nefarious. It is assumed these features will enable stealing service, stealing content to pirate online, or stealing free cable/satellite. Where that attitude so often goes wrong is that a tiny, tiny minority of people may want to do things like that, but the vast majority have legitimate, responsible reasons for these features, and I would go so far as to say those legitimate reasons could convince new customers to buy one.
Video extraction on the TiVo is now almost impossible. There is a program out there to enable extraction in the old series 1 devices, but it does require some serious hacking involving scripts on the TiVo and a hacked ethernet connection. With the series 2 box, they've encrypted the stored movies and made shell access to the device difficult, so the box is essentially locked up.
The series 2 TiVo is now essentially a VCR with a giant blank tape that you can record anyting you want to, but you can never eject the tape. With a VCR, you can save the tapes in a closet for later use, you can take them on trips with you to enjoy what you taped, and you can go over to a friend's house to watch the tape. Those are all perfectly legitimate and more importantly, completely legal things that 99.999% of people do with VCRs.
When I saw the methods for copying video from ReplayTV, Media Center XP, and SnapStream systems, I realized the utility that far outweighs the piracy. Moving shows to your laptop is a great, useful thing for business travellers. It's also great to watch a show on your computer in another room while someone watches a live show on the TV. Being free to copy a show to a DVD so a friend can see something they missed is also a great feature. Putting a 1 Gigabyte show onto kazaa from my cable modem isn't exactly a feature I would want or ever use (Hey everyone, make my connection super slow by all trying to download this whopping file from me that would take you days to complete! Yeah, that sounds like a great idea!).
As I write this, I'm spending a week away from home, and for the plane ride out here I "ripped" half a dozen of my DVD movies to my laptop. I've got 30Gb free and I find it's a lot easier to use a few gigs for storing movie files than it is to lug 5 or 6 DVD cases around in my bag. Also, my laptop battery lasts longer when it's not spinning the DVD drive for two hours. While I got to enjoy a movie on my way here, and I might watch a few this week when I have downtime, I would have much preferred to have been able to grab the 5 Daily Shows I haven't yet watched on my TiVo. I would have grabbed a couple American Choppers and the Monster House marathon I missed. Instead I'll return home and probably pass on the two-week old Daily Shows.
People that are new to TiVo often find some concepts of it hard to understand. You pay a few hundred bucks to bring this mysterious black box into your house, and the box does stuff for you but nothing physical ever goes into it or comes out of it. It virtually saves and deletes programs but nothing is permanent. A TiVo is disruptive to normal TV setups because most people are used to saving things on tapes for years. Letting people transfer movies to their other devices or burn shows to DVD would probably alleviate many first-time buyers concerns about longevity of programming, and let them work it into their existing lifestyles.
Video extraction is a great feature, it's perfectly legal and incredibly useful. It would likely attract more (badly-needed) customers to TiVo and I know it'd make me a happier customer if I was allowed these uses. But what do I know? Maybe it's a better long-time business strategy that TiVo should just continue assuming their customer base consists of pirates that want to steal precious shows simply to transfer online.