The BBC iPlayer, News and Sport apps are available on around 650 different connected television devices, from smart televisions and set-top boxes to media players and games consoles.
Although the emerging HTML5 specification is often seen as the solution to interoperable web applications, in practice there are many differences in compatibility between devices that claim support for web standards. This is a familiar problem on the web but the fragmentation of different flavours appears to be even more of an issue with consumer electronics products.
The BBC TV Application Layer or TAL attempts to deal with the differences between devices, such as remote control key mapping, media player interfaces, networking and storage. In theory this means that the BBC can develop and deploy applications on a well-defined interface without being aware of the specifics and idiosyncrasies of each device.
The BBC Sport application developed for the London 2012 Olympics used this approach.
“This proved that we had found an elegant solution to a very tough challenge, and one which we believe is the only way application development on connected TVs can be done at scale for the foreseeable future,” writes Roux Joubert, the head of television and mobile platforms at BBC Future Media.
We must wait to see how and when the BBC will share its solution. The obvious approach would be to release it as an open source project to allow others to contribute.
We have seen competitive interests overcomplicate previous well-intentioned initiatives. Four years ago the BBC announced a project codenamed Canvas to address the same problem.
Erik Huggers, then director of future media and technology at the BBC, promised “An open IPTV standard that comes with a simple to use navigation paradigm, taking the lessons that we’ve learned elsewhere into consideration.” That resulted in a multimillion pound commercial joint venture which became YouView, which rather than creating an open standard has resulted in a remarkably closed platform.
YouView seems to have backed the wrong horse in basing its user experience on Adobe Flash, while most of the rest of the world has adopted open web standards. Although the public service broadcaster maintained a nominal adherence to the open MHEG standard developed in the mid-nineties, it seems to have accepted that the future lies with web standards.
Meanwhile, the technical and commercial fragmentation of the connected television market continues. Ironically, papering over the cracks in an attempt to support as many devices as possible may actually serve to perpetuate this fragmentation, rather than declaring adoption of a particular profile of existing standards and enabling the industry to support this.
The BBC is in a powerful position to shape the direction of the connected television market in the United Kingdom and beyond. The BBC iPlayer has become an essential application for any device or display manufacturer to support but the process for achieving this appears opaque to many.
The latest BBC approach, through the TV Application Layer, may only be a short-term solution, but open publication may achieve longer term results.