I have a story to tell.
When I first bought my DIRECTV HR22 HD DVR at Best Buy a few years ago, it was pretty nice. Sleek and black, it could hold 100 hours of HD programs. But over time, DIRECTV has added so may features with automatic software updates that the 2009-era CPU just couldn’t keep up. My wife was particularly annoyed because she’d press a button and nothing would happen while it struggled to handle the command. Then she’d press the button again, and after a few seconds the DVR would both respond and unrespond to the second press. Start over.
I read reports of the fairly new HR24 at DBSTalk, saw one in action at a friend’s house, and I was pleased with the response time. So I decided it was time to get rid of the old HR20 in the bedroom, move the HR22 up there and get a new HR24 for the living room. And I wanted an HR24 because it has a built-in Ethernet port for use with my iPad and the drop dead gorgeous DIRECTV app. The HR-25 does not, and I didn’t want to go down the DECA road.
The DIRECTV HR24 HD DVR
That’s when I found out that when you sign up on the DIRECTV website for an upgrade, it’s pot luck. That’s right. DIRECTV will send you any DVR they like, so long as it’s compatible with the programming package you have. In my case, High Definition. I read one story at DBSTalk about a fellow whose new DVR smelled faintly of cigarette smoke — the units are recycled. I was concerned that I’d be stuck with either another HR22 or an HR25.
In a time when people stand in line for Apple products for sometimes days in advance, DIRECTV simplifies its inventory management by sending you whatever unit they please.
The Adventure Begins
I sent an e-mail to DIRECTV customer service about this, complained, and the agent confirmed the policy. But they also pointed me to a web page where I could find a list of local installers and satellite dish shops that sell the DVRs if asked. I also noted that the unit I wanted, but with errors in the specifications that worried me, was available at Amazon.com.* So that didn’t work.
Also, a few years ago, DIRECTV severed its retail relationship with Best Buy, so my local Best Buy, 10 minutes away, was no longer an option. So I called one of the shops listed, about a 40 minute drive away, and, yes, they could get me an HR24-500 overnight. But their credit card system was down. Could I bring cash? And the price was $50 more than DIRECTVs Internet offer of $149.
So the next day, I stopped by the bank, picked up cash, and drove for 40 minutes to this shop, picked up the HR24-500 DVR, and drove home. Total time was just under 2 hours. There is also a $49 charge to have an expert technician come out and configure the DVR. (I have a SWM system which makes configuration a bit more complex.)
When I questioned DIRECTV’s Robert Mercer, director of public relations, about the lengths to which I had to go, he wrote:
… In order to make sure we have an efficient upgrade process, retail stores no longer no longer sell equipment to existing customers.”
I surmise that customers who weren’t so tech savvy were buying equipment at, say Best Buy, that wasn’t compatible with their dish or programming or even home network, and so I can understand. Even so, efficient for whom? It seems DIRECTV has backed itself into a corner by the way it designs its hardware. I can’t help but contrast this to the Apple TV. Plug it in, connect it to your TV with HDMI, and login. You’re done. One is last century technology and one is 21st century.
I also asked Mr. Mercer about why DIRECTV never offered to replace my 2007-era HR20. After all, I’ve been a customer for 14 years. Why not check my current equipment and programming, then send me an offer to pick out a new DVR of my choice? After all, it’s in DIRECTV’s best interest to get the best possible equipment into my hands. Sure, the equipment is leased, but I can’t believe they don’t make a little money on upgrades. If the company doesn’t, then something is wrong with the business model. Mr. Mercer wrote:
To address your question about why we don’t push equipment upgrades for existing customers: Equipment upgrades are driven by the programming that you choose. You pick the level of programming you want, then we supply the equipment that will support that programming. If you decide to change or upgrade your programming, we’ll take a look at whether your equipment is compatible and upgrade if necessary. For example, your HR20 receiver is completely compatible with the programming choices you’ve selected.”
An Amazing Cultural Difference
What that tells me is that the DIRECTV culture doesn’t take pride in its equipment, doesn’t try to create a sense of enthusiasm in the customer for new technologies and will let TV equipment linger in the home until it slows to a crawl … or fails. And that probably explains, in turn, why everyone thinks the software is so crappy. There’s no incentive to create a great user experience. Instead, it’s all about content. I receive promotions weekly via e-mail trying to get me to upgrade my programming to, say, HBO or STARZ, but as for equipment? Just let it grow old, bogged down by mandatory software updates.
Apple TV & iPad - a powerful combo
I find the difference in approach between Apple and DIRECTV fascinating. Apple makes cool gear and even cooler software. When the second generation Apple TV came out, I knew I wanted one, ran down to the local Apple store, and gladly paid 99 bucks. (I also reviewed it.) I gave away the old Apple TV. And that new Apple TV was trivial to install, a joy to use, and has great software. The difference in user experience (and price) explains, for example, why we purchase and watch our movies on Apple TV and not via the DVR. DIRECTV doesn’t seem to get this part yet.
In addition, Apple is nibbling away at the edges of our TV experience with the iPad and AirPlay. Sitting in a cozy recliner with a cat and iPad in the lap is often more satisfying than firing up the big Plasma.
We’ve all talked about how Apple is constrained by its ability to sign deals for sports and programming content. Apple can make cool hardware, even an HDTV, but unless Apple can strike deals with the studios to deliver primary content, the Apple TV will always be a supplemental device. Even so, I see some serious holes in DIRECTV’s customer relationship model and their hardware technologies. In the long run, a persistent Apple will break through the barriers. The contrast in the way each company does business makes that evident.
Mr. Mercer had DIRECTV’s customer adjustment team contact me and apologize. But I was surprised. Any DIRECTV customer would have had to go through what I did, so there was nothing unusual about what happened. Even so, they offered me an adjustment to make up for what I paid for the HR24 and their best current upgrade deal, $99, and I took it.
Our family has enjoyed DIRECTV for 14 years now, but I don’t want to repeat this experience, and I can foresee a day when new technologies and new thinking will leave satellite TV behind. It will be interesting to watch DIRECTV and see if and how they respond. Apple will keep pushing, experimenting, developing and probing. That Disney’s Robert Iger is now on Apple’s board of directors bodes well. It’s only a matter of time before Apple, flush with a boatload of cash, is able to undermine this old-fashioned technology and customer relationship model.
* Mr. Mercer mentioned that Amazon is not an authorized reseller of DIRECTV equipment.