"TiVo, TV Your Way" is more than the corporate slogan of the original digital video recorder (DVR) on the market; it’s also the way Jim Barton, TiVo co-founder and chief technology officer, likely would approach designing and building any consumer electronic device.
A 1980 graduate of both the electrical engineering and computer science departments, Barton has played a central role in transforming the way the world watches television by following a seemingly simple approach—put the consumer in control.
"With a TiVo box today, and even when we built the first one, what we’re doing is sticking supercomputers in a box and putting them on top of your TV. But to make it simple in presentation actually requires a lot more work and a lot more effort," Barton says. "A lot of the computing power and capability in it is put toward making it simple for the viewer. If we do our job right, all you think about is sitting down and watching your program. If we do our job right, the TiVo disappears."
Barton began his career at Bell Laboratories while working on his 1982 master’s degree in computer science and then worked in a variety of leadership roles for Hewlett Packard, Silicon Graphics, AT&T Network Systems, and Network Age Software, Inc., before co-founding TiVo in 1997. During his career, he has evolved his product development philosophy by moving away from the defined, requirements-based approach he learned initially toward a more flexible approach known as rapid prototyping with incremental improvement.
"In the early days of TiVo we thought, well, you pause TV and you record programs, and we could all see how to do that," says Barton. "But how do you present it to people, and how do you make it robust and reliable? So you get more to a model where you build something really fast. You build a prototype. You find out what you did wrong. You iterate on that prototype to make it better and better. Nowadays when I think about these things, until you’ve thrown away two versions of what you’re trying to build, you don’t know what you’re doing yet."
Barton says he is gratified by the impact TiVo has had on the way people seek and receive entertainment and that he is proud to have applied the principles of software design, system design, and engineering to build a simple, reliable product that consumers have embraced in such a positive way.
"A TV doesn’t break. It just works, and anything we put in front of it has to work the same way. In other words, you might as well build the system so people can rely on it. You have to put yourself in that mindset or you won’t get there," he says. "People come up to me and the first thing they say when they find out who I am is, ‘I love my TiVo!’ It’s pretty gratifying to have built a product like that."
Some people might also credit Barton with helping to create a new verb in the English language, as in "Let’s TiVo it!" And for those who might wonder what he himself most often TiVos, his favorite shows include The Daily Show, Modern Marvels, and NCIS.
Barton says that the fundamental education he received at CU has served him well as the industry has evolved from the early days of expensive mainframes and one-way media to an increasingly consumer-focused environment where virtually everyone has access to state-of-the-art technology and instantaneous information. His success with TiVo is a reflection of how to create reliable technology that works within a larger system, and Barton believes that building a strong understanding of how things work together is critically important to successful engineering.
"So much in our society, I think people miss the fact that there are very basic principles to how the world operates and how things go together," he says. "If you understand those well, then you can always extrapolate what’s going to happen and how you should build systems moving forward. And if you don’t, you’re going to be in trouble."