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An Apple Venture into DVRs Would be Ill-Advised

Several sites on Thursday mentioned that Apple has filed a patent on a system that involves a DVR and a remote control device. While Apple can be expected to do its homework on conflicting patents, there are several reasons why adding to DVR to the Apple TV, even with an SSD, would be a bad idea.

If there are people more protective of DVR technology than those who hold IP and patents on DVRs, they are rare. Recently, EchoStar felt the full wrath of TiVo who stated that EchoStar has failed to comply with hefty court award after TiVo claimed their patents were violated. According to TVPredictions on Tuesday, EchoStar now owes TiVo close to US$100M. News of the appeals court verdict sent TiVo stock soaring when it was announced in January.

There are many questions associated an Apple DVR. The Apple TV was roundly criticized when it was first introduced for not having a DVR feature. Apple is a high technology company that certainly could have included this feature if it thought it could deal with existing patents and if such a feature could be an important part of Apple’s business model. Apple did not.

Next, while TiVo remains a rather small company and depends on agreements with cable and satellite companies to keep it afloat, those very same companies have swooped in and built their own DVRs. Penetration in the U.S. with any kind of DVR is fairly high. Traditional carriers perceive the DVR as an important tool to both satisfy their customers, with that 30-sec skip button, as well as the offsetting ability to provide paid services such as VOD. The gateway to that coaxial cable is controlled very well by carriers despite anemic federal laws.

Given that CableCards have been successfully suppressed by the carriers and that not many Apple customers will be able to see the benefit of two DVRs, battling for interfacing and operational use, I don’t see the benefit to Apple.

It could be that Steve Jobs sees the ancient TiVo + HDTV metaphor and software as a ripe business model for Apple exploitation, much as Apple disrupted the mobile phone ecosystem. So Apple filed the patent expecting that, someday, they might decide to jump in and disrupt that market as well. Especially if something changes radically in the technology to their benefit. Apple could buy TiVo, but the idea has been dismissed because Apple doesn’t buy companies that are losing money. However, the patent portfolio combined with new, disruptive technologies could be worth it in this case.

Right now, the home HDTV big stakes market is held by some heavyweights who hold the keys, and it won’t be very easy for Apple to jump in here. Moreover, Apple is a company that seems to attract lawsuits. Jumping into the DVR business at a late stage, risking lawsuits and the wrath of Hollywood and the carriers just doesn’t make sense. It would be too much of a distraction.

I think the Apple TV is a good complement to a current home theater that already has the key components supplied by the satellite or cable carrier. If Apple wanted to get into the DVR business, it would have a long time ago.

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