Whilst being one of the oldest screens in our lives the television set has remained for most of us a fairly passive medium, one where we sit back and watch in true, cool Marshall McLuhan style. But not for much longer if Google and Project Canvas have their way.

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There have been a few attempts to change how televisions can be used. Back in the late 70s and 80s we had Ceefax and Teletext – some of you may even remember pressing the “Reveal” button to gain answers to quiz questions. When digital television came along such services developed into the “Red Button”, where text data and additional programme channels could be found. None of which is/was internet enabled, by the way.

There have been attempts to integrate the internet with the television for but for the most part the interactive benefits of the web have yet to really come to a lounge near you.

The reasons for this are numerous, but one of the big challenges (or even battles) has been over standards – in particular how broadcasters pipe data to ‘televisions’ and set-top boxes.

In parallel to these developments, games console manufacturers (significant as they are plugged into the television set) have successfully developed web-enabled boxes, which have now been in use for several years. This has meant not only that games can be played across the web in real-time with players across the world, but also that YouTube videos and the BBC’s iPlayer can be viewed via the television screen. Sky has taken the logical next step and partnered with Microsoft to create an online television service for XBox owners.

Yet, these services are still quite niche and rather limited. Enter Google and the BBC.

This week Google launched Google TV. A service they describe as, “a new experience made for television that combines the TV you know and love with the freedom and power of the Internet.” Here’s a video that explains more:

But before you get too excited… it needs to be made clear that Google TV is a platform. Its an answer to the standards problem mentioned above, so the purchase of either a new television or set-top-box will be required. Google has worked with Sony (TV manufactures), Logitech (set-top-box makers) and Intel (someone has to make the microchip for all this stuff to work efficiently).

“So hurrah, Google has sorted the standards problem out, go them!”
Not so fast. Also this week the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) announced that the BBC’s Project Canvas fell outside it’s ‘merger control jusitiction’.

Ok, so, ummm, what does that mean in reality?

Project Canvas is a proposed joint venture between the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five, BT, Talk Talk and Arqiva in creating “an open internet-connected television platform with common technical standards”.

For those unfamiliar with Arqiva, they are a “communications infrastructure and media services company”, who provide the infrastructure behind digital tv and radio in the UK and Ireland as well as other European countries.

The reason that the OFT had got involved is due to complaints by BSkyB and Virgin media on grounds that it created unfair advantage, explained here by the Guardian:

BSkyB has argued that Project Canvas, and particularly its backing by the licence fee-funded BBC, amounts to giving its rivals an unfair leg up in the nascent UK VoD market. Virgin Media has argued that despite its protestations to the contrary Project Canvas, which will bring VoD content to TV viewers with Freeview and Freesat receivers, is an unfair closed platform.

The intent of Project Canvas is that:

a consumer brand (not canvas) will be created, and licensed to device manufacturers, and internet service providers owners who meet the specifications.
‘Canvas compliant’ devices (eg set-top boxes), built to a common technical standard, would provide seamless access to a range of third-party services through a common, simple, user experience. [more here].

Project Canvas now awaits final approval by the BBC Trust, but it is now very likely it will get the go-ahead. Project Canvas will be like the BBC’s previous free-to-air brands such as Freeview and Freesat, which transformed take-up of digital television in the UK. What will be interesting to watch is if the same happens again or whether the likes of Google TV (or others) will win through on existing brand familiarity. To do so Google, in the UK at least, will very likely have it’s work cut out, should Project Canvas get the go-ahead.

Either way, TV as we know it is changing.

UPDATE [18.49]: And in related news today…
BBC iPlayer is going social with version 3.0 Beta.
The Times gives a few more details reporting that:

THE BBC will forge closer links with social networking firms this week when it unveils a new version of its catch-up television service iPlayer that integrates with Facebook and Twitter.

4 Comments

  1. Interesting times. I agree that Canvas needs to be an open system, yet what gets me is the whinging from BSkyB and Virgin Media about unfair competition and lack of open standards. If this encourages innovation, the convergence of TV and the Internet and a raft of third party apps then we may well be approaching a golden age of content, interactivity and community.
    Something makes me feel Virgin and Sky want to control innovation on their terms.
    Or am I misunderstanding them?

  2. Good article, interesting topic!

    @Mark: Virgin and Sky were amongst the published opponents to Project Kangaroo too (http://www.competition-commission.org.uk/inquiries/ref2008/kangaroo/third_party_submissions.htm). They will naturally contest anything which appears to be a threat. Whether this is in the public interest is another matter.

    Standards – Good that Google is working with Sony, Intel et al, although this area will undoubtedly see competing standards jostle for primacy; and as suggested by the recently published EU Digital Agenda, creation of non-proprietary standards is a cross-border issue that Canvas alone (for example) cannot solve.

    Another consideration at hand here is the impact of social/internet in the living room. Is it realistic to think that a single user’s online persona will be allowed to dominate in a family setting? While social TV interaction is becoming more established (e.g. real-time community interaction via Twitter hashtagging), this is handled discreetly and concurrently at present via mobile devices and laptop computers, not ‘in your face’ on the silver screen. This may change in time with multi-room, home wifi streaming and connectivity. The question of ‘identity’ here is also of importance in commercial considerations – such as content recommendation and advertising ‘targeted to the inidividual’.

    Perhaps the MOST important issue in the ‘TV as computer’ debate is the question of the extent to which it addresses digital inclusion issues. This can’t be isolated from the network/infrastructure/human/accessibility factors which create their own challenges; however it’s certainly a bridge – especially to the teletext generation – and the more so because of its ubiquity and appropriateness for non-textual communication.

  3. Good rationale here for why Google may fail to deliver with TV
    http://adage.com/u/f24RLb

  4. Google TV will increase a quantity of Subscribers of paid TV, described in more detail here – http://www.fishku.com/category/articles_computers/google_tv_will_increase_a_quantity_of_subscribers_of_paid_tv.whtml

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