The Linux 'Tivolution' has arrived

There's a saying among some pastors that if you don't have a substantial portion of your congregation complaining about the content of your sermons each week, you must not be preaching the truth. I try to remember that when I sift through my reader mail, because I have a rather substantial number of critics who never fail to let me know when I've annoyed them.

Their two favourite hot buttons are network computing and Linux. They see both as dead-end technologies that I am driven to pursue only because I am blinded by my hatred for Micro-soft and Windows. Well, I won't bother trying to set anyone straight as to my rather complex feelings about Microsoft, but I must admit that I do hate Windows because it has so shamefully lowered our expectations of what quality software should be.

Anyway, I mention the above because I'm going to push both hot buttons this time. I've been playing with a set-top box called Tivo, which is a network computer based on Linux and other open-source software. Tivo is essentially an ingenious set-top computer that actually does something other than bring Web browsing to television: Tivo enhances the television experience, making it more personal. For example, Tivo records everything you watch onto an internal hard drive as you watch it.

If the phone rings during your favourite show, just press pause. Tivo will continue to record the program so that you can pick up where you left off after your phone conversation. If you don't quite hear what someone is saying during a program, just rewind a little and listen to that part again.

These may seem like trivial advantages to you, but, believe me, it is very easy to get spoiled with features such as these once you get used to them.

You can also tell Tivo to record programs, much like you can program a VCR. Tivo makes the experience simpler and more reliable, and can play back shows with a much higher quality than is possible on VHS videotape. As for simplicity, rather than program your VCR for a date and time, you can search Tivo for a program such as Dilbert by browsing a listing that Tivo downloads periodically. Then you can "buy a season ticket" for Dilbert, to put it in Tivo's terms. Tivo will then record every occurrence of the Dilbert cartoon even if the network programmers change the time slot for the show.

The Tivo remote has two buttons that let you rate programs by giving them one or more thumbs-up or thumbs-down marks.

Eventually, Tivo is supposed to be able to figure out what shows you're likely to want to watch and then automatically record them without asking. I dislike this feature myself, because Tivo has made some really idiotic decisions about what it thinks I like. But the feature doesn't really get in the way.

There are a few other things I dislike more about Tivo, the worst of which is how badly it commandeers my digital cable box via its infrared emitters. If I hit the next or previous channel button too quickly, the Tivo and the cable box frequently get out of synchronisation. Getting the two back in sync can be a momentarily frustrating experience.

Because Tivo has to dial in to the Tivo network to get things such as program listings, it is relatively easy for the company to upgrade the software in its Tivo boxes. So I'm hoping that I wake up one day to find that Tivo fixed the channel-switching problems overnight. And because it's based on Linux and not Windows, I can safely assume that I won't need to reboot the system after Tivo downloads and installs the upgrade.

If you get a Tivo unit, you'll never know you're running Linux. Tivo has added its own flashy graphical user interface, which is surprisingly excellent for such a new product. If you suspect Linux at all, it will be due to its robust behaviour. I deliberately unplugged the Tivo box a few times during critical operations just to check how much trouble it would get into. It came back up flawlessly each time.

Even with its problems, it is easy to get hooked on the Tivo. If this is any indication of what's to come of the marriage of network computing and Linux, I'll be excited no matter how much hate mail I get.

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