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IPTV/VoD: The tortoise and the hare

How complacency is stunting the industry

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Luckily, there is an answer to the problem of certain devices not being able to read certain types of files or decode video created in different formats. The open-source media server TVersity is an act of genius. Install TVersity onto your PC, and you can immediately watch all the content on your PC hard drive through a web browser anywhere in the world. Put a media player connected to the TV screen on the network and TVersity connects to it perfectly.

But the genius is TVersity's use of the open-source FFMpeg library to transcode any audio or video format on the fly to any other. Your xVid file is converted into Window Media video in real-time for the Xbox to pump out onto the TV. If your D-Link judders and jitters when it tries to play back H.264 content, just use TVersity to transcode it into MPEG-1, which it displays perfectly.

To get a home video network up and running in 20 minutes is easy. Buy an external USB hard drive to put your movies and music on, connect it to a PC in the study, and share it out as a network drive. Buy a PLC starter kit and connect the first electric plug to your home router, and the second into a plug by your TV. Buy a media player of some kind (D-Link, Philips, Netgear, Xbox etc) and connect it to the second PLC plug's Ethernet connection in the lounge. Install TVersity on your media server PC and tweak it to play out the right way for your media player over the power cabling. Nineteen minutes later, you have a home video on-demand network.

Install one of these, and you'll see why people become so excited when they see what it can do. It's about as compelling as it gets. The message is simple, yet profound. Your customers are going ahead and doing it anyway, even when there's no content for them to buy.

But that still leaves the massive collection of DVD packaging on the shelf. We all know discs will become irrelevant as times goes on, as Bill Gates has predicted. Media will be streamed across the network, not from a physical product. Consumers want to be able to backup their DVD collection onto a hard drive (complete with menus, subtitling, featurettes, etc), but crucially, they want to be able to burn it back onto a disc again later if they need to. Research has consistently shown that reproducing the DVD experience over a network increases video on-demand take-up by more than 40 per cent. Network DVD is a familiar "bridge" to video on-demand that makes it easier to adopt and be perceived as great value for money.

Again this touches on another difficult problem, the one of consumers wanting the physical packaging and a sense of ownership of a product. CD artwork is especially pertinent as its part of an artist's work and it cannot be reproduced easily on a PC.

Apple's CoverFlow application does a good job with its 3D representation of a CD and its artwork, but like books CDs need to be held in the hand. Many smaller independent labels and artists are supplying the artwork with music downloads so consumers can take the PDF file down to the local printers and ask them to produce a top-quality copy of the physical product on-demand at their own cost.

But all of this is relatively pointless when we consider the whole point is about sending content down a broadband circuit into someone's home. Professional video on-demand networks do work when the conditions of the network are right, and they work very well indeed. Most services are contended around a 20:1 ratio, and tend to be live in real-time with response times less than 100ms. More advanced video compression may save bandwidth, but it has its price in that the decoding hardware needs a much faster processor to provide a smooth playback experience.

The truth is that in the UK the copper ATM network just isn't capable of streaming media properly to a TV screen, unless it's provided as part of an unbundled telecoms platform. We are massively behind other civilised economies despite having the most advanced TV platforms and audience in the world. So-called "Max" broadband is anything but. We cannot do live, real-time video delivery and won't be able to for a long time. Even when we can technically-speaking, the economics will still prove too prohibitive. Usage-based tariffs are totally opposite to what is needed for video. Regional fiber connectivity pricing to exchanges is frankly, absurd.

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