Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

Absence of rent-free DVR is sample of lack of innovation

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When conservatives talk about how America’s innovation is great, and how small businesses create the jobs, I think of the DVR.

For those who aren’t obsessed with their TV(s), a DVR – digital video recorder – allows you to tape 2 shows at the same time while you aren’t home, allows you to pause live TV, and lets you catch up on a show while it’s on.

Now, if you want a DVR in the United States, you have, well, choices. And choice is what separates Americans from, well, non-Americans.

Your cable company will let you rent a DVR for $14-$18 per month. In homes where people buy furniture and even the TV, you rent the DVR. If you have a DVR, you don’t have to rent a cable box, but if you have a cablecard, you wouldn’t need a cable box.

Cable companies don’t like cablecards because they don’t allow you to use interactive services, a major revenue stream for cable companies.

Now, if you know nothing about modern TV recording, you might remember of a time in the not so distant past where people owned VCRs. You could tape shows for later and play them back, but there were logistical issues, such as buying tapes, jumping around on said tapes to find room, and lazy SOs who would forget to watch a tape so you couldn’t tape over that program until it got watched.

And you could buy a VCR without a rental charge. But TiVo – an understatement to say TiVo is the #1 makers of DVRs – charges you a rental fee in the neighborhood of what the cable companies charge. And you have to buy the machine for several hundred dollars on top of the rental fees.

If you rent a DVR from the cable company, you don’t usually get a choice of DVRs, and if you do, taking advantage of newer technology or increased capacity is almost impossible. The technology in the TiVo is better, but you are paying a much higher cost.

TiVo recently launched a lower price for its new TiVo – $99 – with a catch: a much higher rental fee. Now TiVo had a “lifetime rental fee” – a way to control the costs of the DVR, though you fork out money up front and hope everything works out. Except of course that “lifetime” doesn’t mean “lifetime with the company,” more like “lifetime of the unit.” And these lower-cost units allow for a lifetime rental fee, but this is hidden in the fine print.

Now, a more flamboyant comparison might be to communist Russia, but let’s be honest, Russia wouldn’t have had the TV options of Americans in 2011, and maybe we have too many choices (or too many bad choices anyway).

So you would think that a popular device such as the DVR would be a gold mine for a company to figure out a way to have a DVR without a rental fee. Yet we haven’t seen that happen.

We rely a lot on technology even though we don’t make a lot of it. The Blackberry came from Canada. Seriously. Places such as South Korea and Japan have DVRs that don’t require a rental fee. Those countries are also much more wired than the United States so people can use WiFi in more places. Americans still struggle with the concept of telecommuting.

This isn’t completely the fault of conservatives that we have fallen behind on so many levels. The structures that used to drive American innovation have fallen over the last few decades, but the investment that might have come has drifted elsewhere, from wars and planes to the pockets of already rich people who aren’t doing the innovating.

After all, Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet, but the government is part of why we do have the Internet.

Our hopes for hover cars have long since disappeared. But what is more disturbing is that when innovation does comes down the pike, the new technology is designed more to improve the bottom lines of rich companies than our lives. We get 3D TV, which wouldn’t be compatible for 99.872% of programming, but can’t get a rent-free DVR.

There was an ad a couple of years ago that talked about what would happen if we could call up any movie ever made, and instantaneously get it. This would be a pipe dream. Getting an Adam Sandler movie delivered to my iPhone: not so much.

Yes, corporations are citizens, very powerful citizens, more powerful citizens than we could ever be. And their bottom line is more important than our bottom line.

But when that wasn’t true, innovation was set up to improve the lives of its citizens. Now we get 3D TV where we can’t even agree on one technology for the glasses needed to watch the virtually non-existent programming.

Education and technology are the two crucial factors that will determine which countries will be driving the train 30 years from now. On both fronts, the United States is getting its tail kicked. Our lack of innovation doesn’t help either one of those elements.

And while Democratic politicians aren’t as vigilant on the topics as they should be, they are trying. Republicans are more concerned about stripping down the vehicle of its muffler and exhaust pipe while the proverbial car needs serious engine repair. If you think we’re behind now, if we do nothing, we’ll look back at 2011 and think these were good times. And we still won’t have a rent-free DVR.

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Written by democracysoup

May 20, 2011 at 8:02 am

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