Shortly after I purchased my first TiVo, a friend of mine wanted to know my thoughts on whether or not he should get a DVR. Like any rabid obsessed TiVotee, I immedietely started gushing over, all of TiVo’s innovative features and about how much of a transformative effect, time shifting has played on my life.

After trying to hard sell him on a TiVo unit for over three weeks, I finally succeeded in convincing my friend to buy a DVR, but instead of going with the TiVo unit I recommended, he went with the ReplayTV 5000. I tried to talk him out of it, but no matter what I said he wouldn’t budge. I showed him the superior interface, I let him test drive my own unit, I tried pointing out that suggestions and wishlists were exclusive to TiVo, I even tried to scare him into believing that Replay would possible stop working, if the company went bankrupt. No matter how hard I tried though, I couldn’t convince him to choose TiVo over that ReplayTV 5000 unit because it had a feature no one could touch. Automatic commercial skipping.

When TiVo first launched, the movie studios completely freaked out over DVR technology. They understood early on, the impact time shifting would play on their revenues and went to great lengths to put a stop to it. Initially, TiVo wanted to partner with the studios, but instead the studios threatened to sue the company, if they even launched their product. Hollywood’s huffing and puffing turned out to be little more than hot air when it came to TiVo, but when ReplayTV had the nerve to introduce automatic commercial skipping, the studios knew they had to draw a line in the sand.

Immedietely they lashed out and sued Replay, in order to make them stop. Replay did their best to fend off their legal attack, but eventually their parent company collapsed and rather then let the courts decide the legality of the technology, Hollywood quickly settled the case and resigned themselves to having at least contained the DVR threat.

After Replay found out about automatic skipping the hard way, other companies have been understandably reluctant to provide the technology to their customers. For years, the only way to gain access to this skip technology was to buy old ReplayTV boxes off of Ebay, but thanks to the open source community, there now appears to be a way to unlock automatic commercial skip on any Media Center PC.

Turning on commercial skip isn’t for the mainstream consumer yet, but for those who do spend the time figuring it out, it can add a powerful component to the Media Center experience.

The program itself is customizable and pretty robust. If you are feeling guilty about “stealing” your television, it allows you to adjust the maximum number of minutes it cuts out of each program. You can also program it to strip out commercials and then tranfer those files to a media extender or Xbox.

As it becomes more popular, it will be interesting to see how the studios will react. Suing Replay or TiVo is one thing, but taking on a legal team that has already been up against the Justice department is another matter entirely. The studio’s could always forego the legal route and try to convince Microsoft to shut the leak with more juicy IPTV contracts, but sooner or later it will become an issue that they will want to address.

Hopefully, the studios will end up ignoring it as a fringe threat and let media center fans have their fun, but given how hard they fought round 1, I’m skeptical that we’ll always see skip technology around. For now though, with the help of the open source community, Microsoft has quietely gained a key differentiator in the crowded DVR market and consumers have one more way to enhance their television experience.