TiVo’s Blue Moon holiday — a walk down memory lane

Today, March 31st, is the last Friday in March, which means it’s Blue Moon day.

A little over seven years ago, I started working at TiVo. It was March 2. When I started, things were very chaotic: Everyone was running around, huddling together and whispering in little meetings. My boss was not ready for my arrival: I had a cube, but in it was only a tiny half table, no chair, a PC without a monitor, keyboard, or mouse, and eight trash cans stacked together. Finally I learned why everyone was running around so crazily: Just yesterday, March 1, then-CEO Mike Ramsay had told the company that we had promised we would ship in Q1 of 1999, and that was the end of this month, and that’s what we were going to do. Competition was breathing down our necks in the form of Replay. Mike was convincing in arguing that whoever was first to market would have a huge advantage. We had to ship on time.

Now Bullwinkle and Pony tell this story better because they were at that meeting, and I missed it by a day. But basically everyone looked at each other with the same thought: We aren’t ready. The software wasn’t ready. The hardware wasn’t ready. The customer support wasn’t ready (you could only log cases in a system we hated and couldn’t use; customers couldn’t order; we couldn’t fulfill). Accounting wasn’t ready. The service wasn’t ready. The Showcase team wasn’t ready. Marketing and Sales weren’t ready.

Since every project needs a codename, Bullwinkle pointed out that there were two full moons in March. In common parlance, people call a second full moon in the month a “blue moon.” It’s usually happens only a few times a year, and thus that generates the phrase, “once in a blue moon.” (To be totally pendantic, the true definition of “blue moon” is different, but that older definition is no longer common.)

So, shipping the world’s first DVR became Project Blue Moon. And if I thought it was chaotic that first day, things got worse from there. (My own project name pick would have been “March Madness.”) Basically everyone in the company set aside everything else and started working like crazy. Twenty-hour days, sleeping on couches and in cubes. No weekends. I’d see engineers literally working around the clock — one engineer (Steve Lacy) at 6am briefing another engineer (Brian B.) about what he had done last night during his all-nighter, then collapsing in a couch in Dan’s cube while Brian picked up where Steve had left off. I remember seeing the first demo of the live guide, proudly being shown by Howard and Kyrie after David B. prototyped it and developed it in two days. I remember Rick P. coming in as a new employee the day after I did and creating the manual recording system and screens in one day. I remember Ric M. sitting down and drawing the first map of how many machines would make up the service, and ordering them on the phone in front of us while people shouted out specifications.

We had two IT guys and one facilities person. We were hiring like crazy. This e-mail to an old co-worker from SGI captures a little sense of that. He had written me back to point out my e-mail’s time stamp was off, and I replied:

Yes, things are a little quirky here. There are wires hanging down from every ceiling, cords going everywhere, people crammed into small cubicles and sharing computers — and apparently our e-mail server’s Time Zone is wonky… one of many things that is being worked out, I guess! It’s such a different world here.

For my team I remember us bringing in new employees to be agents, teaching them to use the crazy systems we were cobbling together to be able to take and ship orders and record cases. Every day brought new policies and systems: Okay, here’s how activations are going to work. Here’s how creating an order will speak to a monitoring system and then send activation information to the service. Here’s how to handle prospective customers and convert them to customers once they order. Here’s how to record a case. Here’s how they can switch billing options. We spent almost as much time in meetings doing decision-making and training as we did at our desks doing the work.

We all wore multiple hats. For example, I wrote the setup chapter of the first manual. And we were all in focused testing committees assigned by Bullwinkle (who was in charge of QE back then).

Finally, things took shape. The deadline was drawing closer, but miraculously bugs were being closed, hardware runs at the factory were starting to pass diagnostics, the service moved from being a few machines in someone’s cube to an actual hardware room with a UPS. Our fulfillment tests (shipping empty boxes) started to be successful. We decided how the serial numbers would work. We finalized arrangements between accounting and service and all steps in between. Full page ads across the country were taken out in major newspapers and we started taking real orders (on backorder of course).

I remember doing one all-nighter on March 30 to get the final first batch of orders ready and transmitted. At a company meeting earlier that day, Mike had told us the launch plan idea. We would all head over the factory and watch the first non-prototype units rolling off the lines. Then, some of us would head to the warehouse to watch the orders be fulfilled. And then take the rest of the day off, no exceptions (well, except customer support) and enjoy the weekend. So we all had a small party at the factory, dressed up in blue lab coats, and I still remember the thrill of seeing the units pass diagnostics — and the stack of completed units being packed up and shipped off. The very first box we took aside, and everyone signed it. It’s still on display at TiVo HQ. (I had to convince Mike not to sell it to a random customer when we ran out of inventory later that year!) Later at the factory we saw the orders printed, the units picked, and then packed on to UPS trucks to be shipped out. Blue Moon had been a success.

(And nine months later — a batch of nine or so Blue Moon babies were born!)

At a later meeting, Mike declared his gratitude for our hard work, and because of our incredible accomplishment in shipping TiVo by Q1 of 1999 as promised (and long before any other DVR ever shipped), he declared the last Friday in March would be a “national holiday” from that point on. Thus the Blue Moon holiday was born.

Oh boy was the experience rough. Far from perfect. Even though we had exhausted ourselves for the big first push, our work was really just beginning.

One of the first customers was my brother Rob — I bought him a 14-hour unit ($499) and Lifetime service (then $199) both because I wanted him to have a unit and I wanted to see directly what a customer would go through. Keep reading for an e-mail I sent Kyrie (who was then in charge of the user interface team at TiVo) about my brother’s “OOBE” (out-of-box experience).

Kyrie,

I filled out the OOBE Test for Rob — I’d put it on your desk, but do you have a desk? It’s on Gloria’s chair.

In general, I want to capture his issues before I forget. My writing is pretty sloppy on your form. I crossed out lightly in red any issue that I captured in this e-mail instead.

Overall, Rob’s neutral about the box, and would maybe return it if he had paid for it.

His biggest problem is the San Jose A/B issue. Until we can support two RF inputs somehow, he perceives the box as less than half of a solution. Agrees that if A/B support were present (and when his bug #1 is fixed) he’d enjoy TiVo a lot more.

Any hardware workarounds/boxes we can get? If he signs up for a box or digital cable from TCI, then that solves his problem since the box will output a single source.

Interestingly, we found that his VCR doesn’t pass through any signal if it’s switched off, so he now has to keep his VCR on all of the time. That’s a confirmation of something another field trial participant found.

He never opened the packing slip packet and wouldn’t have noticed any invoice glitches.

Positives:

1. Thought the cables were “high quality cables” and he liked them.

2. Setup and hookup both completed under expected times.

3. Able to use and understand trick plays instantly.

4. Able to record first show using Manual recording, then generate a Season Pass using Browse by Time, and then rate shows with Thumbs using Search by Name with no problems.

5. Liked the on-screen channel/program listings.

6. Liked “pop goes the weasel” sound for FF/REW.

Problems:

0. He thought that the IR blaster cable would control his VCR (which he tried to set up incorrectly hoping it could get him around the A/B problem). His disclaimer is that he’s sick and he hates reading documentation. He tried this on his own, before I got there. He had finished setup and discovered it wasn’t working. He called me (in the equivalent of a “call customer support” call). I told him to stop and wait til I got there and then start over in the OOBE test. That’s why there are two times for his hookup and setup. His first hook up on his own took him less than 10 minutes. He was more methodical when I got there and it took him 10 minutes, most of which was reading about connecting TiVo directly to his TV.

1. BUG: Channel 1 (B) is listed as Comedy Central, but it’s actually received on his system as 99. This may not be simply a Tribune bug; Rob claims that my cousin Mark used the same cable company (TCI) in the same region (San Jose), and for his cable system, Channel 1B really was Comedy Central. Is it possible that some TVs/VCRs/systems see Channel 1 as 99 or vice versa? This is a real problem for Rob, since he watches this channel more than any other. Bummer… Similar 99/1 issue on the A lineup with Starz (which he doesn’t get). Combined with the A/B thing, he’s only able to TiVo-ize about 8 channels that he actually watches. I told him we would fix as soon as possible. File bug against Marcel? Rob’s zip is 95117.

He can manually record and tune channel 99, but he doesn’t like entering “99 Enter” or pressing 99 then waiting, and doesn’t like being unable to record and rate his favorite shows.

I did see a bizarre thing. The first time we viewed channel 99, after trying channel 1, TiVo was NOT showing live channel 99. Instead, it showed stuff from its buffer mixing up different channels — MTV and CNN (which we had watched briefly before). Weird repetitions of moments we had paused and rewound. I was dumbfounded. After switching to a real channel then back to 99, problem went away and we couldn’t reproduce.

2. The overall speed of the system was “annoyingly slow.” He expects and currently is used to changing channels instantly. There were many pauses and hiccups in moving between screens. One or two audio dropouts during live TV (with no activity), and one instance of unprovoked macroblocking that I saw — happened on the hour. I know system performance will improve for 1.02 in a week. I’ll check back with Rob then.

3. He really wants to be able to record one channel and watch another. He didn’t like the cache disappearing when he changed channels — especially when being paused behind live, and then losing stuff he hadn’t seen. Doesn’t think he will ever give up on channel surfing during commercials even if able to fast forward during commercials (points out that for most shows he wants to start watching the moment it starts and he doesn’t want to pause to build up a buffer to use to skip past commercials; instead he wants to surf during commercials). Doesn’t think TiVo will match his viewing habits. Even with split signal, still wants to “save” cache for the show he’s watching while flipping around to other channels during commercials.

4. Wants to be able to edit saved shows, so that he can cut out commercials or bad parts and make montages and then save them to VCR.

In general, his expectations for TiVo were very high. For $700, he expected the box to be perfect. Someone told him that TiVo would change his life — he says he doesn’t yet see that.

He saw the known OSD bug of the green distortion (when you press right arrow from Now Showing to your show) six or seven times. Pretty embarrassing. I told him the workaround.

5. RFE: Time of next action call was 6:39pm. He distrusted the ability of call-waiting to make TiVo hang up, and didn’t want to miss any calls. He wanted the ability to make TiVo choose a different time or learn when he uses the phone.

6. BUG (I noticed): Serial number listed as 372-xxxx-xxx-1 instead of with the 000s in front.

7. BUG (I noticed): What’s with this Change Lineup command under Customize Channels? Seemed to do the right thing though. He has an A/B switcher; if he really gets data for both lineups and can switch, this is almost but not quite practical. In reality, TiVo needs to be able to switch between A and B.

8. BUG (I noticed): Cable Box Setup and Connection to TiVo items still listed, even though he’s a “Cable without Box” user.

9. BUG (I noticed): Service said “0: Unknown” — I thought we would pre-activate? I need to work with Dennis on getting the lifetime data to him.

10. BUG (I noticed): Howard’s image color shifts a great deal during the Welcome to TiVo show. (Howard also looks very tired, and Howard calls the show a “rough cut” — looks unprofessional.) What happened to the TiVolution thing?

11. He was really annoyed at getting stuck in Guided Setup and not being able to abort. He’s part of a class of people who wants to try out every item and abort if it’s the wrong thing. He went into Guided Setup to change lineups from B to A.

12. Our “Good” recording was really bad quality (Xena, lots of action, huge amounts of macroblocking). Didn’t like the Marketing gimmick of “good” being worse than medium.

13. Wordsmithing (I noticed): In the “Program Call (1-2 hrs)” screen between calls 1 and 2, there are three paragraphs about what’s going to happen. The third paragraph says that after TiVo’s done with the phone you can use it. However, the second paragraph makes that third paragraph confusing — it implies that TiVo won’t be done with the phone until after the data is imported. I recommend switching the order of paragraphs 2 and 3.

14. During calls of setup, at my prompting, he thought it was “sort of inconsistent” that sometimes you could hit the right arrow and sometimes you couldn’t. He mostly noticed it on the Select Provider screen, where TCI was his only provider but he coudn’t use right arrow. (Prior to that he had never needed SELECT.)

15. He wanted the box to work without being setup. He was kind of annoyed that he’d have to wait.

16. He had muted his TV earlier. He didn’t notice that it also muted TiVo, and asked why TiVo didn’t make any noise. We may want to say somewhere that TiVo makes sounds through the TV.

17. During his first phone call, his phone was accidentally off hook. It took >1 min for TiVo to tell him no dialtone, then he fixed the problem. In the meantime he said, “uh-oh, did I break it?”

18. He had some trouble with the non-linear order to the Quick Start poster. He only scanned through it. “It was kinda helpful, but it took a second to realize why all the numbers were out of order.”

19. Was confused at p.89’s “X” through the composite video signal. The diagram confused him, he was worried he’d have to change his setup and hook TiVo directly to a TV as well as his VCR. He eventually read the later section on why he didn’t need to hook TiVo directly to his TV (with my help), and understood the S-Video needed the audio cables too. I think for 1.1, we need to put labels on the cable onnections (“S-Video”, etc.) for the hookup diagrams.

20. RFE: After experimenting with “Save More” in Now Showing for a recorded show, he wanted to undo his actions of bringing show up to being saved for 22 days. So he wanted “Save Less”. I told him just to delete it after he watched it. Nonetheless, he said he expected to see “Save Less.”

I know you’re laughing at that last one.

He is fully aware that his standards are high — but he expects a lot for $700. He wanted to give his full and honest opinion.

Bear in mind that he hates to read documentation. Also, “You have to account for the fact that I’m sick.” He wasn’t feeling well so he didn’t have full concentration.

–S.

Those were the issues when we shipped with version 1.0. That was before we added so many features that we have today. The usability greatly improved during that first year. But things didn’t slow down for a long time.

A great many people who went through that first Blue Moon with me are still at TiVo. Congratulations to all of us for what we did seven years ago.

4 Responses to “TiVo’s Blue Moon holiday — a walk down memory lane”

  1. Jim Says:

    I hope someone is keeping notes for a book about the early years at Tivo. I would love to read a behind the scenes look at the company and the early development activities.

  2. Kyrie Says:

    I loved this part of Rob’s commentary: “Doesn’t think he will ever give up on channel surfing during commercials even if able to fast forward during commercials (points out that for most shows he wants to start watching the moment it starts and he doesn’t want to pause to build up a buffer to use to skip past commercials; instead he wants to surf during commercials). Doesn’t think TiVo will match his viewing habits. ” Ha!! What does he think now?? I mean, does ANYONE watch live tv anymore?

  3. BYRON Says:

    I HAVE A GREAT NEW IDEA FOR A NEW PRODUCT BUT I AM NOT SURE HOW TO BUILD AND MARKET THE SYSTEM. I DO NOT WANT THE IDEA STOLEN FROM ME!!! I THINK AFTER WHAT I’VE READ, TIVO WOULD BE A GREAT CHOICE WITH ALL UR ENGINEERS AND HARD WORKING PEOPLE TO PRODUCE THIS NEW PRODUCT FOR ME. TIVO WOULD BENIFIT GREATLY!! IF INTERESTED PLEASE EMAIL ME. BUT I SAY AGAIN, I DONT WANT THE PRODUCT STOLEN FROM ME!! THANKS.

  4. kerala Says:

    BYRON, if you have the product, and its a decent one, i prefer to patent it and market it. If TIVO would benefit, some one will surely support you. go ahead man..

Leave a Reply

AVATAR: Sign up for a free avatar with Gravatar.
CLICK FOR COMMENT XHTML TAG HELP