Richard Halton, the chief executive of the YouView, addressed a packed annual summit of a television industry group, having recently announced that the consortium was delaying the launch of its proposed platform until 2012. He began by saying that his wife had been due to give birth earlier in the week, pre-empting any quips about being overdue. There is now the suggestion that the straight-talking Lord Sugar, who knows a thing or two about set-top boxes, might be brought in to sort things out. In which case, the team at YouView may be wondering which of them will be fired.
When it was first announced as Project Canvas in October 2008, the assumption was that products would be in the shops in 2010. That slipped to the first quarter of 2011, then the second half of the year, and it has now been postponed until early 2012, with the hope of having something to show for the Olympics.
Much is at stake for the shareholders in the YouView consortium: the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BT, TalkTalk and Arqiva. A clause in their shareholder agreement, which allows them to walk away from the project if it is not launched by the end of 2011, is now subject to renegotiation.
There are also suggestions that Lord Sugar could be brought in to replace the current chairman, Kip Meek. A report in the Guardian says that he is set to take the role, subject to shareholder approval. The founder of Amstrad, a supplier of set-top boxes to Sky, which acquired the company in 2007, Lord Sugar is best known to British television viewers as the no-nonsense boss of the BBC reality programme The Apprentice. No doubt if he takes the chair he may be asking some tough questions in the boardroom.
Addressing the annual summit of the Digital Television Group, which YouView recently joined, Richard Halton provided an update on progress with the project. He suggested that “successful launches are worth the wait,” although citing Microsoft Bing as an example may not be propitious. Other comparisons were drawn with the Sony PS3, Nintendo 3DS, Apple iPhone and Amazon Kindle, but YouView would have to do very well to be similarly successful.
In comparison, Freeview was necessarily launched from a standing start in a matter of months and has gone on to become an undoubted success. Then again, with the prospect of switching off analogue signals on the horizon, the proposition of free-to-view digital television through an existing aerial was simple. Persuading people of the distinct benefits of YouView may be more difficult, particularly if the majority of new televisions and disc players will be capable of being connected to the internet. So far the big idea seems to be an electronic programme guide that scrolls backwards as well as forwards in time, a feature that Virgin Media has already appropriated with its new platform powered by TiVo.
Even the BBC appears to be backing away from YouView. Speaking earlier, Roly Keating of the BBC said that the corporation wanted to explore the broadest possible range of routes to deliver connected content. “YouView is one,” he said, “but we want to work with the whole industry.”
YouView has yet to release a final technical specification, which it has now committed to publish on 14 April. It now seems that this will essentially become a superset of the D-Book 7 specification that is currently being drafted by the Digital Television Group.
One of the criticisms of the documents that have been released to date is that a description of hardware requirements only goes so far. Consequently, YouView has decided to publish a developer application programming interface specification some time later, but “well ahead of any launch”.
Meanwhile, an international industry consortium called the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, or DECE, now rebranded as UltraViolet, or UV, threatens to complicate the picture further. Backed by an alliance of Hollywood studios and major consumer electronics manufacturers, UltraViolet aims to allow users to buy access to movies and television shows, either on physical media or as downloads or streams, and be able to view them of a variety of compatible devices assigned to a household account. The idea is to allow interoperation between multiple digital rights management schemes and hide the complexity from the consumer. It sounds sensible, but is fraught with implementation issues.
YouView will be compatible, to the extent that it will use Marlin, one of the digital rights management schemes supported by UltraViolet. The DTG says it will attempt to align D-Book 7 with UltraViolet wherever possible. Beyond that, little consideration appears to have been given to how YouView might interoperate with UV. There is clearly potential for consumer confusion from the similar sounding names, as if the similarity to YouTube were not already enough of a problem.
With sales of flat screen televisions representing the volume market, many of them connectable to the internet and selling in their millions, some people are struggling to see how YouView, if and when it launches, will make an impact on the retail market.
It is equally evident that a range of different products, each with their own application environments, will not necessarily provide a satisfactory solution for either broadcasters or end users.
Ultimately, “it might not be about the device,” suggested Richard Halton. “Actually it’s the content environment and the range of content that you support that’s important.” That, for YouView, is the justification for imposing consistency of user experience, for the benefit of both programme publishers and end users.
One way or another, it seems that YouView presents less of a threat to consumer electronics companies than they may have originally considered. Nevertheless, if it has the catalysing effect of helping to establish an open connected television standard in D-Book 7, on which YouView will be based, it may have provided a useful intervention. The consequence may well be that the existing Freeview and Freesat services continue to develop into connected platforms that enable them to maintain their relevance.
Meanwhile, the consumer will have more ways of connecting their television experience to the internet than ever and ultimately the market will provide whatever approach best meets their needs. That may well be driven by the traditional television channel schedules that have characterised the medium for many decades, but connecting television to the internet may prove far more disruptive.