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Comcast Sunsetting VoD Support on TiVo Retail Boxes

Jeff Baumgartner
5/28/2019

It's the end of an era… or maybe just the beginning of the end.

In a decision that conjures up the ghosts of a US regulatory era that banned set-top boxes with integrated security, Comcast and TiVo issued a warning last week that the cable operator's video-on-demand app will no longer be supported on all TiVo retail boxes effective June 25, 2019.

While that decision coincidentally pops up as TiVo and Comcast continue to battle at the International Trade Commission and in various US civil court cases, both sides attributed it to technologies that have reached end-of-life.

Per an alert delivered to Comcast customers using TiVo boxes, as first reported by the ZatzNotFunny gadget blog, the "current platform connecting your TiVo to Xfinity On Demand runs an out-of-date technology that cannot be upgraded or updated."

Ted Malone, TiVo's VP of consumer products and services, echoed that and expanded on it in this post on the TiVo customer forum.

"The reason behind this," he wrote, "is that the servers which are supporting this VOD application are running on an older operating system which has passed end-of-support."

While acknowledging that the Comcast VoD app on TiVo boxes appears "quite dated by now," he said the vintage offering was written on top of TiVo's old HME architecture, which TiVo no longer uses "now that HTML5 has taken off." HME, or the Home Media Engine, is an "open" platform that TiVo has used on its various connected DVRs.

Malone added that TiVo and Comcast "are actively working together on a plan to bring a more modern Xfinity application to TiVo customers." But he didn't elaborate other than to ask customers to "stay tuned" and to point out that other video apps on TiVo devices "may fill the gap in the interim."

It's not clear how many of Comcast's 20.85 million residential video subs still use retail TiVo boxes that are paired with CableCARD security modules these days. But those devices will continue to support Comcast's linear TV service and still be capable of recording shows from those channels, the companies noted.

In a letter sent to one of those customers (via ZatzNotFunny), Comcast points out that the MSO's VoD library can also be accessed via an MSO-supplied box (of course!), as well as Comcast's Stream app, which is supported on iOS and Android smartphones and tablets, Roku players and Roku TVs, Samsung smart TVs, and, at some point soon, on certain connected TV models from LG and Sony.

Responses from TiVo customers on the forum were mixed -- some were livid while others shrugged it off:

  • "Good riddance, that on-demand app has been garbage and next to useless for years anyways," wrote one TiVo customer apparently happy to see the app head off into the sunset.
  • Another said the Comcast VoD app "was handy for those channels they [Comcast] refuse to authenticate via Roku/Apple TV apps."
  • Yet another said the whole thing "sounds fishy," seeming baffled why the existing app is being removed before a replacement is ready.

A history of stubbornness and lunacy
The decision to put the Comcast VoD app for TiVo's platform out of its misery comes years after much work was done to enable it on TiVo retail boxes outfitted with CableCARDs, separable security modules that were the bane of both cable operators and retailers like TiVo when the integrated security ban took effect in July 2007.

A big problem out of the chute was that retail TVs and TiVo boxes outfitted with CableCARDs operated as one-way devices on the cable network -- they could tune to and receive linear digital cable TV channels but could not inherently handle interactive cable services like video-on-demand because they could not deliver signals upstream on the cable network. By separating out the security with a CableCARD, the hope was that it would spark a vibrant market for cable-ready retail video devices. But technology restrictions that prevented access to MSO VoD libraries failed to put those retail devices on an even footing with leased set-top boxes.

This same problem popped up when some cable operators started to deploy switched digital video for some of their TV channels. MSOs put less popular linear channels on these switched tiers (those channels were only multicast if a video sub in a given user group tuned to them). But retail TiVo boxes couldn't access channels in the SDV tier without the help of a separate (and quite clunky) tuning adapter that was, for all intents and purposes, serving as a separate set-top box. The cable industry also tried to solve that interactivity problem at retail with a platform called Tru2Way (also known as the OpenCable Application Platform, or OCAP), but support by the CE industry was limited, with TiVo declining to go anywhere near it. And a group of CE players tried to get the FCC to bite off on an alternative they called AllVid, which cable believed was AllBad.

Boiled down, it was a big, silly mess with plenty of blame to spread across both sides. I feel like I'll break out in hives just thinking about the days when I had to cover the lunacy that dominated that particular chapter of the pay-TV industry.

But back to the issue of the day, Comcast started to test its VoD service on TiVo boxes in early 2012 and expanded thereafter. And there was much rejoicing.

In the summer of 2014, TiVo and Comcast announced they were working on a non-CableCARD approach that would allow Comcast's linear TV and VoD services to run on TiVo boxes. That sounds like the start of potential support for Comcast's current Stream app, but, so far, Comcast has yet to develop a version of Stream for TiVo's platform. Perhaps this is the future option that TiVo's Malone was alluding too. And maybe more will come to light when TiVo pushes ahead with a plan to separate out its products business from its licensing and intellectual property business.

TiVo's business looks a lot different than it did in the early days of the CableCARD era. Although it continues to support a retail business that has been treading water for years, the company has backed away from the hardware business. For its MSO partnership business, in particular, TiVo has been porting its software on third-party hardware and is now moving ahead with plans to offer its software and services on devices that run the Android TV Operator Tier.

Read about the journey that got us from there to here:

— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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