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Tech 101 | Dave Wilson

A More Instant Replay for Your TV

An Internet connection transforms the digital recording device into something extremely powerful and simple.

November 01, 2001|Dave Wilson | Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist. He can be reached at

Everybody's been talking about convergence--the melding of computers, the Internet and home appliances--for years, but so far, the whole movement has been a bust. That changes today.

The company that makes Replay, a product that lets you record television shows on a standard computer hard drive instead of a videotape, is unveiling a box that is always connected to the Internet. That's a dramatic improvement from the previous model, which was wedded to the telephone network and was quite clunky.

The new model is the first example of a new breed of digital devices that really are going to change your life.

Engineers have built refrigerators with Internet connections, but those are solutions in search of a problem. Someday, you'll be able to use the computer on your desk at work to ask your fridge to tell you how many cans of beer it has chilling inside, but that's not going to happen any time soon.

In contrast, the new Replay's Net connection transforms the device into something extremely powerful and idiot simple.

Hard-drive recorders such as Replay and its major competitor, TiVo, download lists of television programming information, typically on a daily basis. Having the programming on the unit makes it easy for you to tell the box what to record, unlike using your VCR. Only a third of VCR owners record shows because most of us find them too hard to program.

Until now, the companies behind Replay and TiVo have had to set up expensive and cumbersome telephone networks that offer dial-up access for data updates. The devices are designed to phone home, download the program guide and hang up.

To get an idea of how expensive this is, consider the long-distance charges. The folks who make TiVo have to eat those costs. Plus, the system limits what you can do.

For instance, Replay had this great idea called MyReplayTV that was supposed to let you adjust your recording schedule through a Web browser. The idea was that if you had to work late, you could use your office computer to tell the Replay box to record the program you otherwise would have missed that night. But to save telephone costs, Replay updated its programming late at night, so it wouldn't know until the next day that you wanted to record the program. That's going to change with the latest version of Replay, from new owner Sonicblue Corp. The Replay 4000 series, which starts at about $700, connects to an Ethernet cable, the sort of thing you have with a high-speed Internet connection such as DSL or a cable modem. Once connected, Replay seamlessly links to the Internet, allowing for a box that's always connected, all the time. It's got a lot of possibilities, such as becoming a platform for the delivery of all the stuff that people have been babbling about for years: video on demand, secure transmission of intellectual property and computer-type functions on a system you can't disable with a few errant keystrokes.

Unlike the failed attempt to develop so-called Internet appliances--limited computer-like devices such as Sony Corp.'s eVilla and 3Com Corp.'s Audrey (both disasters that have been discontinued)--Replay with a high-speed Internet connection doesn't try to be a computer. It's a whole new thing.

"And I want it," said Barbara O'Keefe, who is dean of the School of Speech at Northwestern University and studies the effect of new interactive media on society. "Seamlessly integrating technologies like this makes life much easier for consumers. Otherwise, it's like having to yell at somebody to pick up the phone when you want to call them, instead of the fully integrated system we have today: The phone rings and you pick it up. Simple."

The Replay 4000 series is still too expensive to be a mass-market item. That doesn't matter right now, however, because only about 10 million Americans have broadband access.

But there's no question Replay, or something very much like it, will be in your living room in the next few years. Experts say the new Replay is just a taste of what we can expect from consumer products built with the Internet in mind.

"The thing that's revolutionary here is it makes use of the big Internet pipe," said Robert Eden, a system analyst with ADC Telecommunications Inc. in Dallas and a Replay owner. "This is one of those transformative technologies. It's the wave of the future."

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