Tuesday, 29 March 2011

IPTV in the UK - is it ready yet?

I was browsing this month's edition of the glossy home cinema technology magazine Home Cinema Choice, which contains articles and reviews of a number of devices and services relating to IPTV, when I began to experience a curious, creeping sense of dread. Let me take you through each of them in turn and you, too, should be able to identify just what this sense of unease consists of.

Ok, first up, let's have a look at the cover - featuring a lovely, piano-black home cinema system from Denon. If money was no object, I'd love to splash out on one of these, it's true, but what caught my eye was the small print in the corner which promises "1st Look! Samsung Smart Hub TV, p.28". Could this be the revision of the Samsung Internet@TV user interface, which I had discussed with a number of developers at the IP&TV World Forum exhibition last week? An interface which promises to allow the user to easily search for content across all sources - broadcast, local-networked and internet - thus allowing IP-delivered content to be truly integrated? Very interesting. So I bought a copy.

Inside, you don't have to go very far to start seeing references to the state of IPTV and internet video in the UK market. There's a brief sidebar on page 9 confirming the delay of the YouView platform until next year - a delay, says Richard Halton, is driven by a need to "not rush" the development of the platform. Or, to (mis)quote those famous Grolsch adverts of the 1990s, they'll only let us watch it "when it's ready".

Which you could look at as a highly-commendable approach if it wasn't for the fact that every consumer electronics company and their dog is scrambling to launch a device or service this year. Will YouView's delayed launch leave it with the scraps that remain after this year's push from connected TVs and internet-enabled STBs?

On to page 12 and a news article covering the launch of Woomi TV on Samsung's connected TV and home cinema systems. This film and TV content aggregator service has been launched by miniweb Technologies, which is a spin-off from BSkyB's initial work into small-screen and internet broadcasting technologies. Woomi, according to this article is pitched somewhere in-between the established "big-players" such as Lovefilm, who provide access to mainstream film content and the TV catch-up services provided by the terrestrial broadcasters. They aim to provide niche content to special interest groups. Well, excellent, say I. As anyone who knows me will attest, I'm nothing if not niche in my taste in film. Reading on, it says that Woomi will allow access to a number of "long-forgotten horror films" from a company known as EZ Takes. That sounds good to me, but if you have a look at EZ takes' website, where they provide a download service to number of non-mainstream and arthouse titles, you quickly find out that most of these are geo-blocked from certain markets, and the UK is one of them. What you can access are the titles which are free to stream, which are the usual suspects familiar to those of us who have gone looking for free and legal video content on the web - i.e. public domain titles. Are you going want to watch a low-res stream of an old Three Stooges short on your 55-inch state-of-the-art LCD TV? Most would not.It's possible that EZ Takes have specifically licensed titles for the UK market through Woomi, but I would be surprised.

Moving on, past the news that iPlayer received an amazing 162 million requests for content in a single month (which - I would suggest - means that there are a number of people accessing it from outside of the UK through proxies, in which case, why am I bankrolling it through the license fee?), we arrive at an article by Anton van Beek, bemoaning the move to IP-delivered feature film. "The Beek"'s argument is that this marks a backward step in quality, following the technological advance from VHS to DVD and on to bluray, which is certainly true. In my limited experience, most download services peg HD content at around 2Gb for a full-length feature, which is a good deal smaller than the equivalent file size on a bluray disc and is obviously necessitated by the UK's patchy broadband. The problem with streaming and download services is that they are having to cope with users on slow copper-wire based broadband with variable speeds around 2Mbps. The thing is, following the launch of the terrestrial HD stations, which are also hobbled by bandwidth restriction, people will quickly acclimatise to low bit-rate HD. Bluray's status as a just a niche format for collectors seems assured.

[As a sidenote, can I quickly mention that the magazine spends a lot of time covering 3DTV - something with which I'm not that interested in personally - but the concensus seems to be that it's... not ready yet.]

And so, on page 28 we arrive at the review of Samsung's latest all-singing-all-dancing connected TV (which I guess justifies the massive picture from the recent cheesfest "Burlesque"). Buried in the middle of this review is a caveat which, while commedably honest, is symptomatic of quite a lot of tech print coverage these days. I'll quote it at length : "It's important to stress that this article isn't a full review; not all of the D8000's online features were ready as we went to press, and there wasn't time to put the TV through our objective test labs. A full and final test will appear in the next issue. This article is, however, based on many hours of time already spent with the 55D8000, so you should get a decent sense of the beast." Now, the kinds of things which are usually tested in the HCC Test Labs are the audio and visual performance specs central to home cinema experience - things like contrast ratios, etc. So, as this article makes no mention of the specific "online" aspects of the set which were not in place at print time, it's a bit of a leap of faith for the reader to make a purchasing decision. As the article goes on to discuss, in some depth, the aspects of the new "Smart Hub" content-browsing interface, I would have to assume that all elements of this were, in fact, working as described, but the suspicion remains that some of the information could just be relayed marketing-speak from Samsung. Why couldn't they just, I dunno, review it when it was ready? So, it's a "World Exclusive" eh? So what?

On page 53, next to a review of one of the first DVB-T2 USB sticks (allowing you to add Freeview HD channels to a PC), which - incidentally - includes software to allow streaming of content to other devices which doesn't appear to work yet, is a tiny review of the Humax Portal. This is the IPTV portion of Humax's Freeview STBs, which wasn't in place at launch last year. This is now, according to this 'review', up and running and providing access to services such as Sky Player to HCC's satisfaction (4 stars). I can't personally comment, but the internet is full of angry users venting on forums that the Humax Portal doesn't, in fact, include Sky Player. Perhaps HCC tested an advance version, or perhaps they should review it when it's ready.

Page 60 contains a review of Sony's networkable media player - a STB which provides access to the services made available to those who waited for a Sony Bravia connected TV, rather than paying hundreds of pounds for a non-internet enabled offering, only for it to be obsolete within the year. Smashing. To be fair, this is a good move from Sony and is reasonably priced at £120, but anyone reading the review with an expectation that they might find out what internet content might be available is going to be disappointed as "the variety of content" is "too much to list here"! Instead, there's merely a brief mention of iPlayer and Lovefilm.

Following a review of the Boxee net-enabled STB (flawed and missing features common to other STBs at present) there is a two page review of the internet-enabled Freeview HD box from cunningly-titled 3View (did you see what they did there?). Comprehensive and well-written for the most part, this review does get strangely science-fiction-y at times, mentioning that "subject to negotiations with its partners, its associate company will offer access to a host of foreign-language and specialist channels via the box". Oh really? That would be great - if it ever happens - but to me it just sounds like the usual marketing-speak from STB maker and service providers who are dealing with a dearth of cheap, quality content for their new services. Quite what it's doing in an objective review, God only knows.

So, I don't want to seem like I'm picking on what is, for the most part, an excellent - if slightly overpriced - magazine, as other similar publications (Stuff, T3, What Hifi) are all equally guilty. And I think this is, in fact, synptomatic of the nascent IPTV industry as a whole. Stop overselling your services and releasing products to market before they're ready. You're only pissing off and confusing the consumer. For internet-delivered video to become mass-market we need some compelling, stable and mature platforms to emerge - and we need media coverage which looks at each offering with a hard objective eye. It'll only be successful when it's ready.

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