I’ve been thinking about television recently. That’s all, you can go now. Huh, still here eh? You want me to go into more detail or something?
I have an odd relationship with television, based on what I expect and what I’m willing to pay for. As one doesn’t yet match the other I’ve walked away from television for the past decade, spending my money on DVDs so that the money goes towards the actual programmes I watch rather than repeats of things I haven’t ever wanted to watch yet have seen dozens of times anyway. Online catch-up services like iPlayer which let me download programs after they’ve been broadcast to watch at my leisure have helped me keep up with interesting programs recently, including indulging a recently acquired taste for documentaries, without having to worry about license fees (only payable on broadcast television). My own design for television, an idea I’ve been talking about for well over a decade, is of on-demand television taken to the Nth degree. Rather than just a selection of programs, every program for the week would be shown on a menu allowing people to watch them as they want. Adverts would be built into the programs so that money could still be made, and a premium version (say 10 or 20p per program or an optional premium subscription price per month) would be available for those who wanted to watch without adverts. Series would be linked throughout the entire run, allowing users to set up their own marathons and secondary content (in my original idea this was thought of as documentaries about programs such as making-ofs and cast interviews, the sort of things that ended up as DVD extras later on, but could include webisodes and the like as well these days) would be available from the series menu. As I’m sure you can imagine, terrestrial television doesn’t come close to that design and the entire experience is left feeling not worth the license fee at all, even when the extra channels from Freeview are included. That’s the main reason I walked away from the paid versions of television and decided to change my viewing habits so that I am not obliged to pay for how I watch.
All of the extra channels that Freeview provides have partnered with Youview and most of them will be offering catch-up television for the past seven days of programming, allowing the viewer to watch at their own leisure. Where the US Smart TV providers have partnerships with Hulu and Netflix (virtual unknowns outside of the US) as on-demand film apps for their services, what Youview brings to the table is a set of partnerships with companies that are already proven in the UK. Youview is signing up with LoveFILM and Film4 amongst other on-demand film services in the UK, allowing for a more home-grown selection of familiar services.
Despite the fact that the first Youview box wont be available in the UK until 2012, I’m already looking forward to the service and will be signing up for it myself as I find the services offered to be worth the license fee that has to be paid. As none of the services cost any money (obviously on-demand films will cost money to rent) beyond the price of the box itself I’ll be happy to embrace this evolution of television and hope that they move closer to my needs as time goes on. I feel that this is the way Smart TV needs to be designed in the first place and that brands such as Apple and Google who are trying to push their own television packages need to have a good look at it. You can’t come up with a single service that will appeal to the entire world, and each country needs its own sense of individuality, it’s own set of services that can be added to the main box easily, either via an app running on its system that connects the user to different channels or through content sharing deals that add new channels.
However, things are starting to change in the UK and television is inching closer to my design for it with the introduction of “Smart TV” which is already starting to become popular in the States and I’m starting to see that television will be worth the license fee soon enough. Now Smart TV has been around for a few years in many forms but they’ve never really been that impressive, and the few that have taken off around the world seem more aimed at the US than elsewhere with their feature and service lists, and therefore their value, reduced dramatically outside of the US. As such these services don’t quite meets my needs or match up to what I see as being worth the license fee I’d have to pay if I opted for them when they become available (see Youview in the boxout), but I can see the potential already as we become more and more connected in our lives.
Already different manufacturers are messing around with different ways to differentiate their systems from each other. Sony has integrated it’s Qriocity movie store, allowing full HD movie streaming to the screen from a single rental point, no matter which country you’re in. Samsung has chosen to push it’s phones as a selling point, as hooking them up to the network gives significant advantages. The television and all web based content on it can be controlled directly from the phone which can have a remote control application installed on it. While this is happening, incoming messages will be displayed on an optional boxout on the screen and incoming calls will get a larger one complete with caller display. They’re even working on streaming video calls directly through the screen although this has been stated as something that should wait until front-facing camera sizes have increased. Almost all of these ecosystems have realised the importance of your own media in this equation (Apple has declined to allow anything not downloaded through iTunes, predictably) and allow you to find it on your PC and stream it over to the television screen.
What I find truly exciting is that this is a young technology, already aborted once in the past due to insufficient web speeds, and it is now about to explode into the public eye as it comes installed on more and more new televisions and media players (DVD, Blu-ray, Freeview, etc) over the next year or so. These currently closed ecosystems will undoubtedly learn from each other, with today’s exclusive feature being standard by the time most people are using them. Do we really think Sony will turn down the opportunity to sell movies via a competitor’s device if given the chance, or that tech companies who make phones aren’t already coming up with a standard for adding mobile to the wi-fi based ecosystem of the smart living room? Just as BD Live started allowing certain Blu-ray players access to web content about the films the users were watching, it is now prevalent on most new players and has started to be taken for granted by users.
In five or six years time we could well have a complete media hub in our living rooms, a range of devices set up to work through the television and set up to connect to their own network and just work together. What was once the dream of a techie could easily become something we take for granted before we realise it has happened. As the current television experience is so segmented, with us having the television screen, media player (DVD, Blu-ray, etc), digital television box (Sky, cable, Freeview, Freesat, etc) and HDD recorders, upgrading any one of those could change how we experience television. As such the smarter makers of these devices have decided to put their own Smart television solution onto each of these, adding on-demand and catch-up services as well as a few other premium rated applications. While these services will no doubt eventually be swallowed by the looming form of generic Smart TV, they are the frontrunners who will define what we expect for the next ten years of living room entertainment as they make things as simple as possible for the first time buyer.
Currently I’m looking into a few smart television versions, firstly just as an easier and prettier way to get media from my PC to my TV (I currently use the Xbox 360 Windows Media Center, and yes I hate that spelling too, to stream downloaded iPlayer programmes over) as well as directly access catch-up services. A truly Smart television package will enable the user to tune into whatever set of channels and services they want to have no matter where in the world they are, allowing the tourist to feel more at home. Until we get to that stage there’s going to be a lot of deals having to be made in backrooms as the manufacturers of these ecosystems try to get as much content as possible over to them. I’m currently thinking of upgrading our experience at the end of the year by adding a Sony media hub that is wi-fi enabled. This has the Bravia Internet Video platform that is currently the best suited for the UK due to the amount of content on it. I had been looking at Boxee and tried out the web experience for that to get a feel for it, even downloading the remote application and enjoying controlling my PC from that (come on BBC, get cracking on that for iPlayer) but too many of the available programmes weren’t what they were advertised as and too many of the applications didn’t work at all (the PC firmware hasn’t been updated in a year and is being brought more in line with the box experience soon so I’ll report on that in the comments when it’s released). All in all I was put off paying the best part of two hundred pounds for a system that doesn’t seem to work consistently well or know that the sites working with it no longer operate, leaving me waiting for a show that was not going to play.
So I’m looking into the Sony system for a start as it will provide a few on-demand services and catch-up services as well as allow media to be streamed from the PC, and will let us test out how often we’d use flat rate services like Lovefilm if available on the television. In the future (later next year, possibly the year after) we’ll get a Youview box and use it in tandem with the Sony box, using the Sony to stream media access on-demand services while the Youview takes care of regular television watching and catch-up services. Between the two we should have all bases covered for a while, although if Boxee lives up to its promise in the future then that may find its way into the collection of boxes hooked up to my television too. Still, internet television (Sorry, Smart TVTM) has a lot of potential beyond catch-up services, premium streaming and web video. Already the different application ecosystems are being used for more interesting things, some of which are pretty cool (video chat through the television already feels more natural to a majority of users who eschew such services through their computers) while others seem like a waste of the developers time (have an eye test at home with simply the old letter chart and none of the fancy equipment that makes it useful). The potential of the television application ecosystem has, in my opinion erroneously, been reported as equal to that of the modern smartphone. While that could be true if each ecosystem were to have a single app for each and every telelvision channel in the world, there are simply some items that will always need extra hardware that wont be put into a television. However, the ability to link mobile units up to a larger screen that understands how their applications run could well become a killer selling point in the future.
The thing that’s bugging me about Smart TV at the moment is that no-one really knows about it, even in the stores you’d go to for advice on such things. I’ve been seriously researching this for a while now and, more often than not, the people working at, owning or being the tech geeks at the stores simply didn’t know what I was talking about. At one point I was even shown a laptop and told that it can plug directly into my television, which may seem cool but is kind of the last generation compared to what I’m after with next generation prices. I’ve felt like I do when I’m out phone shopping, as the only person who actually knows what I’m talking about and infinitely more suited to the job than the monkeys I’m being served by. Still, tech shows are showing it off more often and the first models (not counting those aimed at true techies) are starting to roll across Europe, so people should know what I’m talking about soon enough. In about six months I’ll go back to these shops and be told to go away as they’re closed for Christmas and the new year. A week or so after that they should know what I’m talking about and be able to help me make a decision. Of course, by that time I’ll have most of this set in stone and some of it bought and in use. Perhaps the tech shops will be able to suggest the best sort of multi-socket plug to run them from? Until that time I find myself once again as Robert Neville facing those who don’t have the knowledge I do and so very alone in the world.