I can still remember when the TiVo interface was a beautiful creature of simplicity, a thing to be emulated and learned from. They accomplished so much with a simple directional control.

But the TiVo – and all modern DVR/interactive guide systems – were designed for a different scale of television. A world where each network had a single channel. A world before HD signals complicated everything.

When I finally opted in to HD cable, I quickly developed a coping mechanism. If I needed to find an HD channel, just add 100 to the standard definition channel number. And that still works… for about 10 channels.

Now it’s an unregulated, disorganized Wild West. SD channels hanging out above the 100 watermark. HD channels above the 600 mark, and some in the 500 range. Also, it seems half of the channels in my listing are in other languages. As in every other language. I’m surprised there’s not a binary channel, for crying out loud.

And these aging systems just can’t cope. My TiVos – admittedly, a bit old, but still capable of receiving UI updates – cannot block large sequences of channels (like the United Nations mix of international programming in the 400s-500s.) And there’s no awareness of the relationship between an SD channel and its HD equivalent. Sure, the cable company probably isn’t providing the right metadata, but since the TiVo often knows the network, can’t it reason out the pairings? My intent is rarely “I want to watch the HD feed of Seinfeld on TBS” – it’s usually “I want to watch Seinfeld in the best condition available” or “I want to watch TBS on the best signal available”.

This problem is not unique to television, but there are examples of the issue being handled gracefully. HD radio, for example. In the cars I drive that support HD radio, you simply indicate your intent to listen to a channel. Then the radio finds the strongest signal, HD or SD, and switches gracefully between them when necessary. See? Not so hard.

I long for a world where a few of these areas become a reality:

  • SD only channels are listed first, in the reserved 0 – 100 range.
  • SD/HD channels only have one listing, and the best feed available is shown. Advanced swap option can be available but I shouldn’t be required to use it.
  • HD only channels are listed highest in the sequence
  • International and Sporting channels could be in their own channel ranges, or at least contiguous
  • Let me block ranges of channels
  • Detect which channels I don’t get and HIDE THEM by default, not the other way around

It doesn’t seem like anyone’s really tackled a next-gen TV interface. Folks are either trying to circumvent TV (Netflix, Hulu) or they have very little motivation to innovate because of monopolies (CABLE COMPANIES I’M LOOKING AT YOU.) In fact, at lunch today coworkers were complaining that Comcast’s newest UI, that has been advertised heavily here, isn’t even really available for 6-8 months. How relevant will that UI be then? How can things operate so slowly?

TiVo would be in the best position to innovate as they can convince consumers to make a switch, but they’ve adopted a worldview where they abandon old hardware to encourage new hardware sales. Rather than give my existing HD TiVo major UI updates, TiVo just inundates me with messages about upgrading my hardware. I’m not inclined to update because I’m not happy with the current UI (or the nextgen versions I’ve seen at friends’ homes). In this services-oriented world, TiVo would be better served providing monthly subscribers (as opposed to lifetime subscribers) some way of getting constantly updated experiences.

As it is, I’ll probably retire my TiVo rather than get a new one due to this business model, my experiences with the UI, and the fact that a cable company DVR is easier to own. My HDMI port is broken in my current TiVo HD – if it were a cable box, I could just exchange it. And don’t even get me STARTED on CableCard configuration. But yet, I’m loath to switch despite the likely monthly savings. I switched from a cable DVR years ago when my old unit decided to add 5 season passes I never requested and obliterated all of my saved programs in the process.

Who out there will tackle this problem? Will TiVo ever become a nimble, agile service instead of an old, hardware-dependent monolith? Is there another company brave enough to do an independent DVR box and blow the TiVo experience out of the water? Can someone convince the monopolistic cable companies to take their experiences to the next level? When will we free ourselves from the shackles of our standard definition past? We’ve been stuck in the 90’s – both the decade and the channel range – for far too long.

Of course, my experience with these systems is limited to the hardware my friends and I own. If you know of someone who’s getting it right, share it in the comments or Tweet it to me at @muppetaphrodite.