A week after the unspectacular media launch of YouView, the trade body Intellect has come out in support of a competing standard. With many major consumer electronics manufacturers among its members, Intellect is proposing the adoption of the HbbTV standard to align the United Kingdom with the rest of Europe. It suggests that this could work seamlessly alongside the existing Freeview HD platform. The Digital Television Group has endorsed the initiative. The consumer electronics industry has questioned the rationale for YouView since its inception as Project Canvas, preferring the prospect of a less ambitious technical standard that could be deployed across Europe, while allowing scope for differentiation.
Intellect is the trade association for the technology sector in the United Kingdom, and among its members are major consumer electronics manufacturers including Samsung, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Sony, Sharp and Toshiba, which collectively account for the majority of television sales in the country.
Intellect strongly opposed the original concept of Project Canvas, the BBC proposal on which YouView was based. In its original submission to the BBC Trust in 2009, Intellect said: “By seeking to define a UK specific standard in a global market Canvas runs the risk of creating a technological island”.
YouView is a platform specification backed by the BBC, ITV, Channel Four, Five, BT, TalkTalk and Arqiva, which has so far cost £70 million to develop. Although it shares many common features with Freeview and indeed HbbTV, it specifies a particular user interface, which allows potential manufacturers limited scope for differentiation. So far, Humax is the only manufacturer to have supported the retail launch of YouView, although Pace and Huawei are understood to be developing boxes for BT and TalkTalk. Interestingly, Humax, Pace and Huawei are also members of Intellect.
British public service broadcasters are nominally backing YouView, while continuing to support Freeview and Freesat. Many of their counterparts in continental Europe, led by France and Germany, are endorsing HbbTV as a standard for hybrid broadcast and broadband television. The European Broadcasting Union supports HbbTV and many of its members are experimenting with or preparing to launch compatible services.
The first version of the HbbTV specification was published as an open ETSI standard in June 2010. It is based on existing standards and web technologies A new draft version 1.5 introduces support for adaptive streaming based on MPEG-DASH.
ANT Software, based in Cambridge, was one of the founding members of the HbbTV consortium. Ironically, ANT provides browsers for Humax products and Humax was one of the first manufacturers to deliver an HbbTV compatible set-top box. Humax also offers Freeview and Freesat products, making its commitment to YouView rather questionable.
Intellect has announced the publication of a specification enabling deployed HbbTV capabilities on devices within the United Kingdom, a test stream and the beginning of a consultation with broadcasters and other stakeholders, including demonstrations of HbbTV services already deployed in other European markets.
“Harmonisation with the EU offers more choice to UK consumers. It brings the ability to connect and stream additional channels and applications from across Europe,” said William Higham of Intellect. “Moving towards TV without borders also gives huge scale advantages to UK content-makers and technology companies, in short the UK’s vital creative industries.”
“I hope both the Communications Review process and the new leadership team at the BBC will make it their priority to ensure the UK is the leading market in Europe for innovation in horizontal platforms, just as it was through the period of switchover,” he continued. “And we will only achieve critical mass for UK content makers and technology companies if we lead in such a way that the rest of Europe can follow.”
The Digital TV Group, the industry association for digital television in the UK and an active HbbTV member, said it welcomed the Intellect consultation. In a characteristically carefully-worded statement it said: “The DTG is committed to ensuring a highly stable, open and innovative digital television market in the UK and will work with industry partners across the sector to enable the continuing success of that market.”
The DTG publishes the D-Book, the technical specification used for Freeview, Freeview+ and Freeview HD, which also forms the foundation for YouView. In April 2011, the DTG issued D-Book 7, which incorporates HbbTV specifications, adding elements to meet the requirements of the market in the United Kingdom to ensure existing and new services can coexist and interoperate.
The announcement by Intellect can be seen as a snub for YouView, which will further undermine its long-anticipated launch. The first Humax boxes are expected in the shops by the end of July, just in time for the Olympics. There now seems even less prospect of major consumer electronics brands producing YouView televisions in the future, significantly limiting the potential of the platform.
So what are the prospects for YouView? It seems it will mainly become a platform for broadband service providers BT and TalkTalk as they struggle to compete with Sky and Virgin Media. Consumers will continue to buy millions of Freeview and Freesat compatible flat-screen televisions, which will increasingly also support HbbTV by default, in the interests of addressing the wider European market.