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High Definition Throws Wrench In TiVo-To-Go

Because of copyright restrictions, high-definition content can be played on a monitor or a TV, but it can't be put onto a mobile device.

TiVo subscribers willing to spend a hefty $800 for its new digital video recorder will find one feature missing, the ability to burn content to a DVD, or move it to a computer or portable media player.

TiVo's Series3's biggest feature -- the ability to play high-definition content -- is also its most limiting, in terms of portability. While such content can be played on a monitor or TV, it can't leave the box.

The reason for the inflexibility is the lack of copyright protection technology approved by content providers and cable operators. The viewing quality of high definition content increases its value, and makes it a potential favorite among pirates, so copyright owners are particular sensitive about the distribution of HD programming and movies.

"The definition (for distribution) so far has been nothing happens," Andrew Morrison, product manager for Series3 at TiVo, said Wednesday. "You can't get it (to another device)."

Movies and cable programming that's broadcast in much lower standard resolutions for TV can be transferred without many restrictions. Less expensive TiVo boxes enable subscribers to burn that content to DVD and transfer it to a PC or portable player, including Apple Computer's popular iPod.

The rules for the handling of cable content is enforced through technology certified through the Cable Television Laboratories, or CableLabs, a non-profit research and development consortium founded by cable operators in 1988.

Among the organization's duties is the issuance of CableCards, hardware modules that enable a device to decode encrypted, or scrambled, content delivered from the cable operator. Without such a card, a set-top box manufacturer would not have a working product.

TiVo and other manufacturers are working with CableLabs to get certification for moving HD content outside of the set-top box. But given how HD TV and other playback devices are just starting to hit the market, it's unlikely portability of the prized content will happen anytime soon.

"It may never happen, or it could be years away," Morrison said.

Eventually, as HD content and devices become mainstream, it's likely that consumer demand for taking their movies and TV programming with them will force providers to approve copyright-protection mechanisms.

For now, the portability feature in TiVo is used mostly by technology-savvy subscribers, so not having it in Series3 is not expected to hurt sales, Morrison said.

"For the mass market, it's probably a top 10, but not a top 3 feature," he said.

Differentiators such as content portability, however, are important, as TiVo looks to compete in a market that's becoming highly competitive. Along with competing with set-top box makers like Motorola and Scientific Atlanta, TiVo also needs to stay ahead of companies like Microsoft.

During the upcoming holiday shopping season, Windows Media Center PCs are expected to ship with CableCards, which means a person could connect the machines directly to a cable TV connection.

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