YouView – why can’t an existing receiver be updated?

With the announcement that Project Canvas is to be branded YouView, there have been quite a few discussions on various forums about the project – which has of course still to get final regulatory approval – and what it means for the consumer.

Specifically, some people have been questioning why we need a new box for YouView, and what does it bring that isn’t available already – and does it mean that some kit that has catch up TV functionality in it will become obsolete over night.

To deal with that last point first, Humax has specifically stated that they envisage two ranges of boxes going forward – the existing ones, which will have access to some of their own IPTV services, and the YouView/Canvas range, which will be built for the new platform. You will, in other words, have a choice – and I’m pretty certain other manufacturers will follow the same path. In one of my conversations with 3View about their PVR, they said that they envisage Freeview being seen as the of ‘entry level’ service, and YouView as the ‘premium’ version.

I’d say that it’s extremely unlikely that people will find existing services, like the iPlayer on Freesat, will disappear as a result of YouView. No broadcaster has suggested doing that, to my knowledge, and why would they? It would be silly to cut off iPlayer from the web, or Freesat, just because there are other boxes that can deliver it to the TV. And having developed apps for things iPlayer or ITVplayer on Freesat, there’s not really anything to be gained by switching those off. In all likelihood, they’ll be using the same streams anyway, and connecting to the same content database anyway.

So what does YouView bring to the table?

Why do we need YouView, some people say? If the MHEG engine (that’s the code that provides the interactive ‘red button’ services) in Freesat and FreeviewHD kit can provide access to IPTV, why is there a need for something else like YouView? Couldn’t it just all be done that way.

What Canvas/YouView brings, above and beyond the basic IPTV capability of platforms like Freesat, is a much richer environment in terms of UI and API, and that makes it much more flexible.

The MHEG interactive system in Freesat and Freeview HD boxes can access IPTV streams, but that’s about it in terms of rich functionality. It’s an add-on to a system that wasn’t originally designed to do this sort of job – a very clever one, mind, lest anyone thing I’m being too critical. But there are flaws. First, there’s not really the idea of persistent local storage, so that it can interact easily with a hard drive, or what’s on your home network. That makes some things tricky to do.

And in terms of ease of use, it’s something that sits on top of the device interface, by which I mean that it provides a different interface to the one for things like the programme guide on your TV or receiver. And if you’re watching a catch up of Doctor Who and then want to catch up on Taggart, you have to exit the BBC’s MHEG application, switch to an ITV channel, press the red button load their catch-up application (when it’s available), and start watching there.

That’s hardly a smooth and integrated experience, is it?

Delivering the apps

There would be another big drawback with using the MHEG system to deliver lots of IPTV content to. It’s designed to load an application from the broadcast datastream, which means as well as creating the app, you also have to have the capacity to broadcast it. That effectively limits access to the system to those people who can buy broadcast bandwidth in which to carry an albeit relatively small MHEG application, and get a channel slot on which to host it.

(It would, I suppose, be possible for a broadcaster to provide links from within their own app to other IPTV services – but then you’d have a single broadcaster as a gatekeeper for everything; that would be even more concentrated control than people are complaining about, especially if it were the BBC doing it).

If you consider that there are lots of companies that might want to offer their services via the IPTV functionality available in Freesat and Freeview HD, you can see how the EPG could very easily be cluttered up, as that’s really the only way to get a receiver to point at the right application.

Would it really be appealing and elegant if you had a whole section of the EPG with data channels for services like Picasa, YouTube, LoveFilm? There could be dozens of them, and it would quickly become tricky finding the right stuff.

Why would it have to be in the EPG? Because in the current specs, that’s the only place it could be; the interactivity and IPTV capabilities in current sets are there, but they are based very much around the MHEG engine, and separate from any other IP capabilities a set has (eg Vieracast, Internet@TV). You can’t build on those capabilities, because they’re all different and some sets don’t even have them (eg, Panasonic’s G10 series – capable now of iPlayer via Freesat, but with no other IPTV functionality outside that provided by the MHEG engine).

Why we need Canvas

YouView/Canvas is necessary if you want to provide a richer and better integrated system. It goes beyond the ‘add on layer’ approach offered by MHEG, and ties it into the whole system, providing a consistent UI – which is something that few sets around manage at the moment; for example, you can’t jump between online services and the broadcast EPG; you typically have to back all the way out of the IPTV services, and then go to live TV, then enter the programme guide.

Canvas unifies that, which should make it much easier for ‘ordinary’ people to find the stuff they want (who’s going to bet that ITVplayer won’t be “Red button, then page 7001” when it launches on Freesat?) in a consistent manner that just isn’t achievable on current sets (at least, not without rewriting the whole UI; and if you did that, can you imagine the confusion if people turned on their TV one day to find the whole EPG looked different?).

And, as well as doing that, by providing a consistent API and specifying core technologies (like the encryption), it will make it much easier for content providers to deploy their services. LoveFilm won’t have to do a different version for each brand of TV. Nor will AceTrax. Nor will they have to license different encryption systems because different TV makers have made different choices, and it’s the only way they can be on all of them.

And punters won’t have to think “Well, if I buy brand telly X I can get AceTrax, but if I buy brand Y I get LoveFilm, but no iPlayer”

For all these reasons – and many more – YouView will provide a lot more than the current IPTV offerings available from Freesat boxes; and it’s also because of the need to be able to provide all those things that you’re not going to simply be able to apply a firmware update to an existing box.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a FreeviewHD or Freesat box that you’ve bought this year will suddenly become obsolete. It will still work, it will still pick up the programmes you want to watch on it, and it’s very unlikely the online services that it accesses will go away.

But if you want to take advantage of all that YouView can offer, you really are going to have to get a box that has been designed from the outset with that in mind.

11 thoughts on “YouView – why can’t an existing receiver be updated?

  1. It is possible to make powerful and interesting STBs outside of platforms such as YouView – the Toppy PVR springs to mind – but I imagine that the impending arrival of YV will discourage independent development (and 3View seem to have dropped the ball, etc.). Does this likely mean that any desirably flexible HD PVR will be a YV box, and still be about a year away?

  2. From what I can make out, YouView is simply a standard way of integrating catch-up services into a Freeview box. By introducing yet another brand/service name/box spec into the mix I think there is a real risk of a) further confusing consumers and b) alienating consumers who have recently invested in equipment such as HD boxes, although I do recognise that those boxes will continue to work.

    I have a strong background in IT, own a Toppy and yet am struggling to understand where YouView fits in with the other offerings associated with “free” digital tv, such as Freeview, Freeview HD, Freeview+, Freesat etc. I think YouView will face an uphill battle trying to explain what it is to “ordinary” consumers. Or could it be that YouView simply becomes another small label on the front of Freeview boxes and they won’t need to?

    Finally, will box manufacturers really want to have things like the behaviour of the UI dictated to them? Will it be easy for them to meet the YouView specs and still be able to differentiate their box from others?

  3. To take the comments in order, yes, of course you can create platforms outside of YouView – and I’m sure people will. But don’t forget that, while the Toppy is capable of many things, IPTV isn’t one of them, and in that regard it’s quite limited.

    People will continue to make PVRs that don’t have YouView type functionality, and some people may decide that there are better ways to integrate and provide an interface, and go down that route. They’d still be able to provide access to services like iPlayer, just as other boxes do already.

    So, I don’t think standardising on an interface will necessarily stifle other development; for example, I’m sure plenty of people will be developing for the european HbbTV standard, and providing services aimed at that.

    Sky standardising on an interface for satellite might have diminished the market for non-platform satellite gear, but it’s not extinguished it – and YouView’s not going to have the clout of Sky, or the proprietary content that they used to block the market. Sky didn’t stop Freesat being developed, either – so I really don’t see that having a common standard will necessarily stop some people going their own way.

    WIth regard to the various bits of branding, I think it’s realtively clear.

    Freeview is SD
    Freeview HD has better pictures.
    The ‘+’ version of each indicates that there are recording features.

    There’s much the same on Freesat, though there the HD service also has the benefit of platform-based catch-up services, in the form of iPlayer and (soon) ITVplayer.

    YouView/Canvas is essentially intended to be FreeviewHD+ with the addition of catch-up TV and online services.

    There will, of course, be some boxes that blur the boundaries between the two – the iCan FreeviewHD box already does, having iPlayer, as will the Humax ones, when their portal goes live.

    But if you want the whole shebang, as it were, then you pick a box that says YouView on the front, because you know that then you’ll get all the services you’ve heard about, rather than finding that what you get depends on which brand or model of TV or set top box you’ve picked.

    There are certainly elements of the UI that are tightly specified in the YouView docs; I’ve not had time to read the ones that have been published so far, but that may of course limit some types of differentiation. There will be others – some ISPs may decide to throw in a box, as part of a subscription term, for example.

    There may be room for differentiating with some of the add-on services that are available, perhaps – by bundling or discounting them. I’ll have to find time to read more of the docs and write them up (though that’s not likely for a little while, given current work)

  4. “No broadcaster has suggested doing that, to my knowledge, and why would they? It would be silly to cut off iPlayer from the web, or Freesat, just because there are other boxes that can deliver it to the TV.”

    There would be nothing silly in cutting off iPlayer from Freesat or Freeview boxes as it forces consumers to go out and buy another STB / IDTV by reducing functionality of their existing box. Ka-Ching!

    1. And what benefit would that have for the BBC? They won’t be selling YouView boxes, and they won’t be making money when someone buys one. So they would have nothing to gain, and plenty to lose by doing something so stupid.

  5. The benefit would be only needing to support 1 platform instead of 2. Thus saving on costs and being able to spend time and money on developing a single platform. This happens in the software world all the time.

    1. Once the front-end is done (which it has been), there’s not much need for ongoing development, and all the content is coming from the same back-end systems.
      Those systems will remain in place for things like mobile versions of iPlayer, PS/3, Wii, and so on – unless you seriously imagine that the launch of YouView will see all those turned off too.
      There really is absolutely nothing for the BBC to gain by being spiteful and cutting off iPlayer on Freesat, or pulling it from manufacturers with whom they have existing agreements (like ADB, makers of the iCan box, for example) when YouView launches.
      The likelihood of that happening is, in my view, vanishingly small. So small it’s barely even worth worrying about.

  6. You mention that iPlayer is available on several hardware platforms. Is the software that accesses iPlayer on the Wii or PS3 etc custom made by the manufactures or made by the BBC? I suspect it is made by manufactures. It then comes down to how long will they continue to support these platforms and the applications like the iPlayer that run on them. A recent example would be when the original XBox Live service was closed in April this year.

    Manufactures seem quite happy for you to be forced upgrade.

    1. This varies apparently; in some cases, the BBC puts together an app, while in others they simply provide the API and certify that a company’s code is working properly, then issue a digital certificate which is used to authenticate access, once the paperwork is done. I think there’s a general move towards the latter, because by standardising on a format for the streams, and the way in which they’re accessed, it makes it much easier for other people to provide iPlayer on their devices.
      And that also means that that backend, into which these different devices and platforms plug, is not likely to go away, because to do so would remove the service not just from one device or platform, but from all that rely on the systems.

  7. Having just shelled out two grand for a shiny new Samsung C8000, I will be hugely annoyed if YouView doesn’t appear as an app on their Internet@TV platform as soon as practically possible. I thought that was the whole point in having such an architecture that can be extended through downloadable applications?

    1. I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. YouView isn’t an app that can run on another platform – it’s a platform on which apps can run, and which has specific hardware requirements.
      Think of it as something like a version of Samsung’s Internet@TV that’s not tied to any particular manufacturer, and also has a lot more functionality built in.

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