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Paul Festa

Staff Writer, CNET

Five years after TiVo introduced the rewind and fast-forward buttons to broadcast television, hackers are pushing its digital video recorder to new heights–and possibly giving the company some ideas about where to go next.

TiVo boxes are in many ways a perfect target for gadget hobbyists, providing both the means and motive to create some high-powered enhancements.

The devices use mostly off-the-shelf computer components and run the open-source Linux operating system, making it easy for curious tinkerers to try out their skills. In addition, TiVo has intentionally left many tantalizing features out of its boxes due to concerns over potential copyright violations.

That combination has fueled a high-stakes game of underground innovation for TiVo, which must tread carefully as it seeks to create new features to stay ahead of rivals without angering Hollywood and broadcasters such as partner DirecTV.

TiVo hacks available for download do everything from adding a Web interface to the TiVo unit, converting programs to DVD and other formats, altering TiVo native features, expanding the unit’s hard drive, transferring files back and forth from the unit to the PC, and archiving shows at smaller file sizes.

“TiVo is missing some tremendous opportunities,” said Riley Cassel, a programmer who last year released a popular, unauthorized extension called MFS_FTP. “There’s no technical reason you couldn’t watch TV across the Net…Of course, the problem is that the same software can be used to broadcast HBO or Discovery HD, so Hollywood would go nuts.”

Among hard-core, high-tech TiVo users, customization is king. The risks of voiding the warranty, provoking Hollywood or even getting electrocuted aren’t enough to keep some fans from prying open their units and hacking them.

“We don’t really do anything–we don’t condone it and don’t encourage it.”

–Bob Poinatowski, product manager, TiVo

TiVo may frown on the practice officially, but it has done little to crack down on such tinkering so far. In fact, some industry veterans said they believe the company is reaping significant fringe benefits as it now moves to add enhancements aimed at fending off deep-pocket rivals.

“I think it’s great for TiVo and the industry,” said Mark Cuban, who sold to Yahoo for $5.7 billion and is now president of HDNet, a provider of high-definition TV programming. “You aren’t going to switch from TiVo after you have customized it.”

TiVo said it will enforce its terms of service and reserves the right to pull the plug on users who violate these. But the company also acknowledged that, in practice at least, its treatment of the thriving hacker community is hands-off.

“We don’t really do anything–we don’t condone it and don’t encourage it,” said Bob Poinatowski, product manager for TiVo’s service business. “We don’t really participate in any way, though we know they’re there.”

Another TiVo representative who asked not to be named said TiVo had not gotten any blowback from content companies and that as long as the hacking didn’t negatively impact TiVo’s business, the company didn’t plan to spend time addressing it.

The company has been working to beef up new service offerings to set its device and service apart from other digital video recording products. TiVo has a downloadable content service in the works with partner Netflix as well as a new interactive advertising tool.

As far as the hackers are concerned, TiVo’s vision of the future–including its recently announced partnership with Netflix to provide movies on demand–just looks like yesterday’s hack.

“TiVo’s just once again copying utilities that we’ve been using for years,” said MFS_FTP author Cassel, who has considered starting a business to fill in TiVo’s gaps. “The Netflix thing isn’t even news to us.”

“TiVo’s just once again copying utilities that we’ve been using for years.”

–Riley Cassel, programmer

TiVo has a history of going against the tide, and that attitude has allowed it to outlive numerous predictions of its demise by critics who said it offered a feature easily copied by Microsoft and cable operators. While the company has survived, competitive pressures are only increasing as Microsoft continues to push PC-home entertainment convergence, and competition by other DVR providers press TiVo to compete on features.

But TiVo faces risks in developing new features, most importantly in angering large content companies, many of which have an investment in the company or are significant partners. New features such as TiVoToGo, which allows subscribers to transfer shows on a recorder to a home computer, have already drawn the ire of some.

That dynamic puts the hackers in the peculiar position of both fortifying TiVo customer loyalty in the way that Cuban described, and raising expectations for features that could exacerbate TiVo’s existing tensions with Hollywood and other content providers.

Concern over copyright violations has already had a chilling effect on music recording devices that show even the potential for abuse. XM Radio, for example, pulled a recording device off the market amid concerns it could turn satellite radio streams into sources of illegally copied and shared music. Hackers have already restored a similar device to the market.

TiVo hacks are not exactly new–hackers have been extending TiVo practically since the product was first introduced.

But recent months have brought a wealth of interest and activity to the phenomenon. Enthusiasts congregate on TiVo hacking message boards. There are TiVo hacking FAQs, wikis, online how-tos warning of electrocution and voided warranties and specialty sites for Mac TiVo hacking.

For book-loving TiVo hackers, at least three volumes exist on the subject.

While TiVo has taken a hands-off approach to its hackers so far, the history of the digital music business suggests that could change depending on the hacks’ popularity and capabilities.

“The most sensitive thing would be the copy protection that TiVo is bringing to market with upcoming products,” said Rob Sanderson, a media and communications analyst with American Technology Research in San Francisco. “That’s going to allow TiVo users to move content around to other devices aside from the TiVo box, like the PC or the notebook computer, and this is a very sensitive thing to the content owners. When you start moving movies or TV programs to devices that connect to public networks, you get a lot of people worried.”

TiVo hacks–along with some company competitors–already do just that. Cassel’s MFS_FTP extension, available since February 2003, lets people transfer programs from the TiVo box to the PC and back again.

TiVo’s proposed technology to transfer files to the PC won the backing of the Federal Communications Commission in August over the protests of Hollywood, the National Football League and others concerned about such capabilities leading to widespread unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials.

But TiVo managed to persuade the FCC that its copy protections would adequately ward off a piracy free-for-all.

TiVo hackers scoff at the idea that the company’s copy protections will slow them down.

“TiVos encrypt video by default and signature check the kernel to prevent any modifications,” Cassel said. “Those have to be bypassed to do anything. The TiVoToGo controls won’t be any harder to circumvent.”

EtiVo, another TiVo hack making the rounds among high-tech couch potatoes, allows the archiving of TiVo-captured content at smaller file sizes.

More hacks are on the way. HDNet’s Cuban suggested a few potential TiVo-related applications in a recent Web log posting.

For Cuban, who last month posted a TV technology wish list of sorts on his blog, the current TiVo hacks don’t go far enough.

EtiVo “does everything on what you have already downloaded,” Cuban said. “The key to these things working is that you have access to everything that is out there before you download it. I want access to everything that Comcast or Charter is out there securing and offering on VOD (video on demand).”

CNET’s Richard Shim contributed to this report.