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The final internet screen – television

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.

links for 2009-11-09

Recommended reads and links for this week

It may be August, it may be quiet but there have been a few things this week that are worth a read or quick schmooze – oh, and where else will you find viral marketing mentioned on the same page as semiconductors and DNA?


The Guardian reported this week that the Office of Fair Trading is to investigate targeted ads and pricing online. The investigation is going to cover areas such as price comparison websites and the use of personal data in website advertising, including behavioural targeting technologies.
The results of the investigation could prove significant for the industry, particularly in the light of the European Commission’s proceedings against the UK for failing to uphold privacy laws in line with EU regulations as regards Phorm.

This week Advertising Age also asked: Why Do UK Videos Always Seem to Go Viral? With a headline like that, how can you not go and have a peek?

Wolfram Alpha – the computational engine using semantic technology that should not to be confused with Google or a search engine as this thing likes calculating stuff – have blogged on what they have been doing this summer.
The post can be summarised as: we’ve been busy and reliant on summer being quiet and traffic down so that we can make sure the site works even better in the autumn. But, ignore my cynicism, the insights that Stephen Wolfram gives show how a company can be open regarding it’s product development and give you a little glimpse under the hood.

Another semantic technology company to be aware of is Fluidinfo who launched online this week. The idea for the company started in the UK and the team are now based in Spain. Their first product is FluidDB which they describe as “a new kind of hosted (cloud) database, designed to provide a global metadata and personalization engine – for everyone and everything.” You can read the product overview here.

Note: those interested in semantic technologies should also look at OpenCalais.

Finally, the FT reported that IBM scientists may have discovered a way to use DNA to help construct semiconductor chips. The report explains:

Scientists have suggested that artificial DNA nanostructures and “DNA origami”, in which a long single strand of DNA is folded into a shape using shorter “staple strands”, could be used to provide a template for the self-assembly of other materials into nanoelectronic or nano-optical devices on the surface of the chip.