Canadian television software company Espial has agreed to buy the distressed British competitor ANT for around £5 million, subject to approval. The company, based in Cambridge, was an early advocate of browser-based user interfaces for television. ANT was one of the founders of the European HbbTV standard but failed to capitalise sufficiently on its success.

Based in Cambridge in England, ANT plc, which is currently listed on the London AIM market, provides software for internet, hybrid and connected television products and services, with clients including major television manufactures, set-top box vendors and service providers.

ANT started life developing a networking card for the Acorn Archimedes computer, together with client software including a web browser. The company was co-founded in 1993 by its current chief technology officer David “Borris” Fell, together with Martin Coulson and brothers Alex and Nicko van Someren. The others went on to establish encryption specialist nCipher and Simon Woodward was brought in as a consultant 1997 and focused what had become a browser business on the television market.

The ANT Fresco browser was used in early internet TV products and IPTV deployments. The Galio browser was released in 2004 and has been deployed by a number of IPTV service providers and is embedded in various set-top boxes.

Customers include ADB, Amino, Bouygues Telecom, Cisco, Chunghwa Telecom, Coship, HwaCom, France Telecom, Humax, Pirelli, Sagemcom, Samsung, Technicolour, Telecom Italia and YouSee.

A founding member of the HbbTV initiative, the European standard for hybrid broadcast and broadband television, ANT failed to capitalise on the advantage.

The company only licensed software to a single new customer in the first half of 2012. However, Cisco began deploying ANT software in North America as part of its Videoscape Voyager Vantage solution and Cisco Explorer range.

In August ANT parted company with Simon Woodward, its chief executive of 15 years and the following month effectively put itself on the market.

“The combination of Espial and ANT provides the increased scale and HTML5 expertise for Espial to further its leadership position in this very valuable market,” Royston Hoggarth, the chairman of ANT said in a statement. “We believe the combination of these two market leaders will benefit and help intercept the growth of this market.”

Espial, based in Ottowa, is traded on the Toronto stock exchange. The company has offices in the United States, Europe and Aisa, also provides browser-based software for television service providers. It has around 90 employees, while ANT currently has around 40.

In the first nine months of the year, Espial reported revenue of $10.6 million and a net loss of $1.4 million. For the first six months of 2012, ANT reported revenue of £2.47 million and a net loss of £440,000. Ant reported that it had cash and other financial assets of £4.4 million.

In its interim statement the company said it was exploring all options to maximise shareholder value, including continued trading, voluntary liquidation, or the sale of the Company or asset sales.

“Multiscreen video services on set-top boxes, smart TVs, tablets, PCs and smart phones are quickly becoming the new expectation for today’s consumers. Delivering a superior user experience across these devices is a critical element to the success of TV service providers,” reported Jaison Dolvane, the chief executive of Espial.

“The acquisition of ANT provides Espial with the increased scale, resources and depth of experience to extend our HTML5 market leadership. ANT provides rich expertise in delivering HTML5 user interfaces and applications as well as delivering complex vertically integrated client software solutions.”

Espial believes the acquisition will provide a stronger European presence and a broader customer base with increased scale to deliver HTML5 user experiences and integrated clients across set-top boxes and multi-screen devices.

While many believe passionately in open standards, like HTML5, the challenge for relatively small software companies is how to make money from licensing browser-based software. They will argue that considerable expertise is required to integrate, test and optimise software for different processors and systems, but the ability to charge significant licence fees is limited.

Meanwhile, the value in proprietary middleware software for television has all but collapsed, with revenues largely based now on systems integration and professional services. That requires a very different scale and skills to compete in the global market.