There has been an interesting industry reaction to the proposals from the BBC for Project Canvas to bring together broadband and broadcast programming through a unified user interface. The BBC is keen to point out that it will be based on open standards, although it is far from clear what that actually means in practice. There has so far been little in terms of technical detail, but the BBC is now attempting to engage stakeholders.
Erik Huggers, director of future media and technology at the BBC, gave a keynote at the annual summit meeting of the Digital TV Group, an industry association for digital television in the United Kingdom.
Richard Halton, the strategist who is responsible for the Canvas project at the BBC and is on the board of Freeview, will provide an additional keynote at the IPTV World Forum in London later this month, promising to “unpack and explain the proposal in greater detail”.
The project has two basic aims. “The first is to establish a standards based approach for delivering content to internet connected TV sets,” he said. “This does necessarily mean creating standard–there are plenty out there already–but bringing the relevant ones together.”
The second aim is to support the existing Freeview and Freesat platforms. “The BBC would like to ensure that, as before, there is a choice in TV between those who wish to take a subscription and those who don’t.”
“The BBC has only an audience interest, not a commercial interest, and promotes the needs of audience and the license payer,” he said. However, the BBC has announced partnerships with commercial broadcaster ITV and telecommunications company BT.
“We’re working with ITV, have consulted with all ISPs about the role they might play, and received positive expressions of interest from quite a few, with BT being the first to come forward,” he said.
“We have spoken with a number of Europe’s leading broadcasters, and there is interest in the idea of a common platform. But we’re still very early in the process.”
In the last week informitv has heard further concerns from industry experts about the apparent lack of transparency in the project.
Some have observed that in recent years the BBC appears to have been moving away from open standards and specifications to become increasingly reliant upon alliances with technology companies.
Others have argued that the approach apparently being adopted runs counter to the years of experience and best practice gained in developing specifications in a manner that is open to comment, criticism and contributions from industry stakeholders.
Griff Parry, who heads video on demand for Sky and is responsible for the Sky Player broadband service, was recently reported as saying “It’s not clear to anyone what Canvas is — we’re looking for a degree of openness and information.”
Some observers suggest that Canvas is not really intended to be open, but is designed to provide a distinct alternative to platforms such as Sky.
Meanwhile, Sky can be expected to launch its own broadband video service to bring services to television screens through the network port now provided on its set-top boxes.
There are already other devices on the market that can deliver much of what appears to be proposed for the Canvas project. Indeed, barely a month goes by without an announcement of a new initiative in this developing space.
The irony is that rather than facilitating a common standard that would benefit all platforms and all viewers, the BBC and its partners propose to develop and deliver a partial solution to meet their partial interests.
The BBC iPlayer, for all its achievements, is a closed platform that employs proprietary standards. There may be benefits to the BBC in such an approach, in maintaining the brand and user experience, controlling the distribution of programming and preventing aggregation or disintermediation, but it is not necessarily always in the interests of users.
The BBC only recently joined the Open IPTV Forum, which was established two years ago with the objective of producing end-to-end specifications for internet protocol television services. The group has produced detailed specifications for service and platform requirements, which serve to demonstrate the complexity of the domain but still provide insufficient detail to implement a platform.
The specification of a genuinely open platform based on open standards is an admirable objective but is also a considerable undertaking, even for large organisations like the BBC and BT.
The experience of the web world has shown that even relatively simple standards, exposed to the scrutiny and creativity of many minds, can produce extraordinary invention beyond the capabilities of any individual organisation.
Some experts have suggested that all the BBC really need do to enable a hybrid of broadcast and broadband services is to publish the specifications by which it will provide programming, and leave it to the market to compete to develop and deliver ways in which its exceptional output can be distributed and displayed.