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Electronics giants raise ruckus over Project Canvas

Free? Open? We can't allow that...

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Project Canvas, the joint venture of the BBC, ITV and British Telecom, must be up to something good considering that some makers of consumer electronics (CE) gear are squealing "foul".

The UK's Intellect Technology Association, whose members include Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Toshiba and Pace, said in a submission to the BBC Trust that Project Canvas risks isolating the UK as a "technological island" in a global market by trying to create a standard IPTV set-top box for just the UK. That, of course, is exactly the opposite of what the Project Canvas members have set out to do.

Project Canvas was formed to create an industry-standard technology that's open and free to license that can be added to any set-top box. It will allow video on demand to be delivered over the Internet for viewing on a TV set by services such as the BBC's iPlayer and others. It can also be added and used on any Internet-connected device such as a portable media player like the iPhone or iPod touch. Watching TV shows and movies on demand, anytime, anywhere, will have an enormous worldwide appeal.

Unlike the BBC, the CE companies which oppose Project Canvas are real businesses that have to pay money (taxes) to the government. Still and all, two-thirds of the Project Canvas participants, ITV and BT, are also for-profit corporations which pay taxes.

The BBC and the two others are acting on the public's behalf to establish a free, open and universal standard that anyone can implement to overcome two major industry problems: How to play content from multiple producers on a device or player, and how to enable consumers to view Internet videos on their current TV sets at a low cost.

The question is whether it's better to have proprietary CE manufacturers develop the standard, something they have not done or even said they would do, or a BBC-led trio. CE makers will be able to add Project Canvas technology to their gear rather than trying to develop their own as Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba are trying to do.

Sony has a proprietary closed-garden Internet access for a few of its TV sets called Bravia Internet Video Link service and, for its Blu-ray players, a walled-garden Internet access called BD Live. Sony hopes to makes billions from its proprietary Blu-ray technology licensed to other CE makers for a hefty fee.

None of its TV sets allow the user to browse the open Internet. It has consistently failed to add Wi-Fi Internet access technology to its devices. Its PlayStation 3 online service is a proprietary and closed-ended service which allows users to buy content only from Sony. It has consistently refused to support standard music formats and even tried to muscle its own onto the market a few years back, which failed.

The proprietary technology that Panasonic puts in a few of its TV sets and Blu-ray players, called Viera Cast, puts Panasonic solely in charge of what users of its gear can access on the Net.

Toshiba with HD DVD spent millions to develop proprietary technology for playing high-definition DVDs (although that was backed by the DVD Forum), just like Sony did with Blu-ray. CE makers would have to have paid a license to use HD DVD technology.

Then there's Pace, which does exactly what its customers, the pay-TV services, tell it to do. And the pay-TV services follow the orders of the studios and TV networks. And there's no free and open standard in their products for handling Internet access. No doubt they could add that but instead bow to the dictates of their customers, and rightly so.

The Intellect Technology Association, whose members represent more than 70% of the UK digital TV equipment market, accuses the BBC of a lack of openness and of failing to properly carry out due diligence on existing standards. Perhaps they should first swear off developing proprietary technology that they can either use as a competitive advantage like Panasonic's Viera Cast or use to extract billions in royalties as Sony is doing with Blu-ray.

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