TiVo, ReplayTV vie for uncertain prize

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Who will win the battle of TiVo vs. ReplayTV? The answer could be: None of the above.

While TiVo and Replay users enthuse about their personal video recorders, sales figures are not encouraging. PVR is a technology in search of a business model.

Tom Edwards, senior analyst at researcher NPDTechworld, questions the future of standalone PVRs. Yet as an embedded technology, the PVR could be on its way to mainstream adoption, with broad implications for TV and advertising. Mr. Edwards sees good potential building the technology into other devices, such as cable set-top boxes, TVs, DVDs and satellite receivers.

TiVo and Replay are licensing their technology and software for such uses. But they face competition from others developing PVR technology for cable and satellite services. In the end, Mr. Edwards said, the feature is likely to be unbranded to the user, negating the need for PVR suppliers to build consumer brands. "It's an emerging technology, but it's not hot yet," he added.

There are signs of slowing at the top. TiVo forecast it would add 40,000 to 50,000 users in the quarter ended Oct. 31 vs. the 51,000 it added in the same quarter a year ago. This would be the first year-on-year decline in subscriber growth since the service began in 1999.

A case of the law of large numbers coming into play? Hardly. In a neighborhood of 200 homes, only one on average has a TiVo. More U.S. homes have outhouses (671,000) than TiVos (504,000 to 514,000).

Another warning sign: Microsoft Corp.'s UltimateTV came within 200 units of TiVo in year-to-date retail sales through September, according to NPD. That came even though Microsoft in January disclosed it was exiting PVR hardware after it concluded the business model-subsidizing manufacturers and relying on subscriptions for profits-was not viable. It continues to develop PVR software while it looks for profitable ways to deploy the technology.

Not so super sonic

Replay marketer SonicBlue doesn't reveal unit sales, but NPD data show Replay's retail market share has dropped to only 3.9% from 6.6% last year. ReplayTV got a boost this month when Best Buy agreed to carry the product.

SonicBlue, which began life in 1989 as a maker of graphics-accelerator PC chips, morphed into a consumer-electronics company over the past few years by buying such brands as ReplayTV; Go-Video, a pioneer in dual-deck VCRs; and Rio, a pioneer in MP3 players.

SonicBlue is losing money, saddled by debt and battling copyright-infringement litigation from Hollywood. In recent months, it changed much of senior management and cut 25% of staff. The stock, trading at 43 cents last week, is down 98% from its 2000 peak; Nasdaq has threatened to delist it.

The stock of TiVo, meanwhile, is down 95% from 2000; its star has faded on Wall Street even as it's risen on Madison Avenue. TiVo has an appealing brand; it must prove whether it has an enduring business model-and whether the brand in the end will matter.

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