Erik Huggers, the director of future media and technology at the BBC used a keynote at the annual summit of the Digital TV Group in London to outline his vision for the proposed Project Canvas. This aims to promote a standards based open environment for internet connected television devices. Everyone, it seems, is in favour of standards, which is perhaps why there are so many different standards initiatives.
Erik Huggers appealed to consumer electronics companies and the industry in general to create a common standard for network connected televisions, which is what Canvas aims to do.
“The internet is finally going to have an incredibly important affect on media consumption in the living room,” said the director of future media and technology at the BBC, as reported by trade publication CSI magazine.
“There is a really big opportunity for us to work together and set that single standard and to avoid a proliferation of hundreds of different ways of getting that medium into the living room.”
“We’d like to create a BBC that doesn’t sit on top of an ivory tower, but partners with the industry and contributes in ways it hasn’t done before across the board,” he said.
The BBC aims to make iPlayer universally available but claims that it has to support 14 different flavours of video and four different flavours of DRM to work across different platforms.
“For us in the industry we all talk the talk on multi-platform, but we’re trying to walk the walk and it’s quite difficult because there is no such thing as a common way to get media onto connected devices,” he said. “We have to figure out how to get to a world where we can publish through a single standard and it just works — and that’s a big opportunity.”
“Ideally you have a commonly agreed standard that everyone works to and we then transmit the iPlayer once and it just works. Where we are today is not where I want to be in a year’s time. By that time we hope to have the country blanketed with Canvas-enabled boxes that we build in partnership with the industry.”
Just to be clear, as previously reported by informitv, the BBC Trust has emphasised that “the BBC would not be involved in the manufacture or distribution of equipment” although it aims to be involved in an organisation could effectively certify compatible devices.
The emphasis on devices is interesting. Rather than standardising its output, and allowing manufacturers to design compatible devices, the BBC is pursuing the approach of attempting to standardise the devices themselves. For some observers, that is putting the cart before the horse.
The BBC has an obligation, although not explicitly defined, to make its programmes universally available to the licence fee payers that fund them. It has no formal mandate to make them available on any device, or to ensure that devices are compatible with its programmes.
It has developed a version of its iPlayer specifically for the Apple iPhone, although all mobile devices currently constitute only around 1% of consumption. The vast majority is delivered to personal computers, of which Windows represents 64% and Apple Macs constitute 8%, while conventional cable television makes up 26%.
The challenge is to deliver online services such as iPlayer to television screens using a common standard. The solution, one might imagine, would be to publish programming in one or more standard formats and enable the market to innovate and differentiate around them.
In the case of audio and video, appropriate standards such as MPEG-4 are well described and well established. Indeed, for most aspects of delivery, from programme information, to subtitles, to conditional access and encryption, there are already candidate open published standards. It may be simply a matter of proposing an appropriate suite of specifications to which programmes will be published and made available to compatible devices.
So, one might expect a white paper, a technical policy, a proposed profile, or simply a request for comments. So far, technical details about Project Canvas have been few and far between. The document on which the BBC Trust has invited consultation is so vague as to be incapable any real technical scrutiny.
The Digital TV Group was formed in the mid-nineties to facilitate the introduction of digital television in the United Kingdom. It published and maintains the ‘D-Book’ which sets out the detailed technical standards for employed for digital television transmissions in the country. At its annual summit it published the latest specification, including enhancements for high definition and broadband connectivity.
Yet many members of the DTG, which represents over a hundred companies from across the industry, were left wondering exactly what the proposed Project Canvas actually involves.
As a leading and respected provider of programming, the BBC may have a responsibility and a role to play in defining the standards that it wishes to adopt, but it is simply unrealistic to assume that it will continue to determine these for the rest of the industry.
In the case of personal computers, the BBC is moving towards the Adobe Integrated Runtime or AIR for its download service. This may be a reasonable strategy for developing its own software, as it allows cross-platform compatibility across Windows, Mac and Linux environments. However, it relies upon a proprietary platform that is ultimately controlled by commercial vendor. This is by no means the only available approach.
The situation with hardware devices is more complex. Economies of scale depend upon vast volumes that can address global markets, rather than individual countries. The success of initiatives such as the DVB project which has defined digital television standards for much of the world, has been based upon the involvement of many stakeholders.
David Wood, head of new technology at the European Broadcasting Union, also emphasised the need for standards across multiple platforms, but stressed that further proliferation should be avoided and that the UK should not go it alone, but look at standards on a pan-European level.
“We are all in favour of a single common standard — as long as it’s ours,” he said. “I’m sure Canvas is technically fantastic, but a new one of these comes out every month. We cannot afford to have 72 different markets in Europe for these hybrid broadcast-broadband systems.”