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IPTV/VoD: The open fourth platform

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Industry comment Just when you thought the days of the digital TV "walled garden" were over, this week Sky released its new Sky Net platform, which is almost as imaginatively titled as the new service to be released by the start-up Aggregator this year.

It seems the world is taking a giant leap backward to the days of web portals and brand marketing that failed so dismally in the past. At the least Aggregator’s service will use a broadband connection, as Sky’s new train set is still firmly routed in the days of signal-noise ratios of 33.3k dial-up modems.

Openly touted as nothing less than a revolution in interactive television, these internet-like services are trying to put a internet-like world on our living screens that any small business or individual can be part of. The trouble is that this "openness" is fools gold and they come with a sting in the tail – they are still fully controlled by the big boys, and they don’t quite share the philosophy that drove the uptake of the internet.

Traditionally, television platforms have been differentiated by their mechanism of transmission – satellite, terrestrial, cable and recently, DSL. Each operator has arguably relied on the reach determined by their network coverage first, and their content offering second; you can’t offer the best content in the world to people unless they can actually receive it.

If you put them side by side, most offer the same type of thing, but by different means. They're also really quite spectacularly boring and suffer from the terrible disease known as "me too", which is almost always a quick path to obsolescence in other markets.

It's all been about TV up until now, so this first round of service extensions are a step towards broadening their range of content and staying ahead of the technological game. The experience of using a TV service is intimately tied to the brand its offered under, so it's no great surprise broadcasters and investment bankers scramble to design nice looking, user-friendly screens that are easy to use and as idiot-proof as possible.

That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing; it's the driving vision that accompanies it which turns the whole thing sour. Each one of these operating menus (EPGs, or electronic programme guides) is controlled by a brand, and nothing gets near it that is not totally under the control of that brand's owner. Everything on Sky is Sky branded and controlled – if you want to create, innovate, market or experiment, you need Sky’s permission. If you want to create new services and use TV as a medium, you are accountable to Sky or NTL. Oh, and you pay through the nose for it too. These TV platforms are closed, private and proprietary. They will never been anything but that, despite the protestations of the portal people.

Now contrast that with the internet, which is nearing a head-on collision with the world of pay television. In a little over 10 years, it has become the most powerful force of social change ever witnessed on this planet. It has the power to topple governments, create billionaires overnight and offers a virtually free platform for anyone to create and innovate around.

The decision by academics at CERN to release their intellectual property to the world is as significant as the US-led HGP openly publishing the human genome. The internet is the great equaliser. Geography and distance have become irrelevant and a world has opened for the human race to collaborate in ways noone could have possibly imagined.

It did all that because it was built on a principle of openness and philanthropy. The contrast between those two vastly different worlds go some way to explaining the difficulty technologists have had in adapting current business models for IPTV, or the confusion that comes with defining new ones.

How do you reconcile a free, open platform with a closed, pay TV one? It’s an extremely difficult question that the greatest of minds in the corporate world are struggling with. Not a day goes past without talk of how widely adopted IPTV will be as a 4th platform.

All the signs point to IPTV being food for the lions in the UK, with Homechoice being the most frequently quoted example. Video Networks' technical accomplishments have been nothing less than extraordinary, as have KIT’s. They've made many mistakes and come in for a very serious kicking more times than journalists can count, but the biggest one is arguably that their platform is effectively doing nothing different than cable.

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