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.