Sky, the UK satellite broadcaster, is to launch a new interactive TV portal based on standard web technologies that will potentially allow anyone to have a presence on interactive television.

BSkyB says the new interactive television portal will enable existing web publishers to reach a potential audience of around 20 million users through their television sets.

The new initiative will complement the entertainment, gaming and communications services available on the existing Sky Active portal.

With around 10 million viewers accessing existing interactive services on Sky each month, the aim is to broaden the range of services available on the platform and to stimulate further innovation in the interactive TV arena.

Ian Valentine, who responsible for technical alliances at Sky Interactive, has been working on the plans for over a year. “Sky’s investment has created a network of millions of devices that are capable of accessing internet-based services,” he said. “We want to work with the web community to bring the depth and diversity of the internet to interactive television.”

The portal will launch later this year with the aim of attracting a range of online providers, including established commercial services, not-for-profit organisations and even individuals.

Services will be accessed using conventional web addresses or via listings on the portal.

Users will be able to save their favourite links and access a history of previously visited services.

Individual users within a household will be able to create a personal profile to store information for online transactions, using features such as auto-complete and auto-logon.

The new portal will make it easier than ever before to launch an interactive TV service.

It will require web publishers to adapt their services using the WTVML technology acquired by Sky which has since been made available as a published standard. Similar to the WAP XML standard used for mobile phones, it allows services to be created using a standard markup language.

Registration, testing and validation services will be available online.
Although there will be no charge to register and launch a site to the new portal, publishers will have the option of paying to promote their site on the portal. This will include the ability to register a shortcode, known as a SkyKey, which will allow viewers to jump directly to their site.

In opening up their platform in this way, Sky is dramatically lowering the barriers to entry for interactive television, potentially enabling new classes of service to emerge.

How successful it will prove is another matter. The experience of WAP has not been particularly successful, despite its availability on millions of mobile phones.

In order to make their services work on interactive television, providers will need to create special versions specifically for the Sky platform. Providing that a critical mass of active users can be achieved, this could be a worthwhile investment, and it offers an inexpensive route for television advertisers to add transactional services.

Usability will remain a critical issue. Television is not the web, and using a remote control from across the room is very different from using a mouse and keyboard. Furthermore, users will need to pay telephone charges while connecting to the service.

Nevertheless, the Sky initiative could be an important development in the evolution of interactive television.