Special report: Mediacast 2005
Firstly as I walked through the door I bumped into Brian Sullivan from Sky who told me “not much here, you’ll be round in 5 minutes???. As Brian suggested there wasn’t much to interest the UK consumer this year but, as always, there were a few interesting things on display (some in broom cupboards).
People on the forums have been discussing the various HD demonstrations and I was unimpressed. Now I wasn’t unimpressed by HD; I have seen it in my own home on my own plasma so I know what it should be capable of, but the demonstrations were to show people that the technology is just around the corner (like we didn’t already know it) and also seemed, in some demonstrations, to be showing how bad SD can be instead of how good HD is.
The point of the demonstration was made: of course HD is much better than SD, but the example comparisons were in some cases not as good as they should have been. Worse, because there is little HD content around that can be shown at this kind of event, they were not showing current high quality drama from the US that is developed and broadcast in HD. That would have shown far more effectively what the future might be like. If you went to the show, don’t despair! HD can be much better.
Next on my wandering was the NDS stand. They had a neat next generation product on display. The product had 4 LNBs and the ability, via IP and a network, to talk to four small STBs that allow the user to watch, record, and play four separate streams at the same time. Each playback point has full independent control of the system and each user can have their individual settings. The system uses hardware-based encryption to ensure that there are no unencrypted signals being sent around the home network, which could be wired or wireless depending on operator requirements. The ethos of this potential product, which was wrapped up to look like Sky’s EPG for a demo, is to centralise the main Sky service in the living room (possibly with an HDTV capable box) but provide a very easy way to extend the service to multiple rooms around the house.
Currently it is possible for Sky households to have several boxes but it must be a wiring nightmare for Sky - a wireless IP based secure solution would be very attractive as the next step in Sky’s ability to provide more valuable services to users. Being able to have Sky+ capability at every room in your house and the ability to pause in one room and carry on watching in the another at the touch of a button is a potentially nice feature, and making it wireless could make the installation easy as well (although I hope they leave the RJ45 option available for those with cat5-wired houses). By using relatively simple IP based technology NDS have created a good system but it maintains NDS’s core aim of a secure environment where content is secure right up to the point it is displayed. No unencrypted content on the LAN and no decryption keys flying around the ether. Something interesting to look out for in the future and if you are a pay TV operator NDS reckon that the technology could be developed in under a year – but for consumers: don’t expect it to appear in our living rooms that soon.
My conversation on the NDS stand ended up with a discussion about whether talking about breaking the protection method on the DTT version of Red Hot TVs Adult Service and the Top Up TV sampler (pay for a day) service was illegal. His view was that they were not encrypting the channel, just hiding the PID value and a company has sold the channels an MHEG application to make the receiver go to that hidden PID value when you typed in a code given to you over the phone. Therefore, because the channel was effectively in the clear it was not illegal to talk about what that PID value was. I’m not entirely convinced (and DS does not permit such discussion on our forums) but he also reckoned it was a great promotional tool for NDS to show the difference between obfuscation and true encryption. It sounded to me like their marketing people would be using it as an example of how not to protect your content and us talking about it would make it all the more of a story. Maybe we should ask NDS’s lawyers to sponsor the discussion.
Finally hiding in the back of the show I discovered, in an empty closed off room, a TiVo! Eventually I managed to track down the two representatives from TiVo and asked if they were planning on re-entering the UK market. They were unwilling to give a definitive answer but they did vary from "when, not if" to "it’s a 50:50 chance." So, what might they deliver? Well, they reckon that they have a number of choices but they seemed to like the idea of a twin tuner Freeview DTT box with broadband connectivity (it might be the only way to get the EPG and they wanted to know if that would be a problem). They also wanted to know if people would pay for an EPG with a Freeview based service. The feedback was that they definitely felt that Freeview was a great platform for them and that with Sky+ in over 700,000 homes, their marketing would be much easier that it had been when they first entered the UK market. One of them said that "having played with Sky+ last night at a friends house, if that is the competition we won’t have a problem," and I think he might be right. When TiVo came to the UK originally, no one knew what a DVR was. They managed 30,000 or so sales to some very enthusiastic people, but that was that. Sky have revolutionised the market; for example, 10% of Sky households have Sky+. At present none of the current DVRs out there have the intelligent programming capabilities of TiVo, so I hope that Edward and Joshua from TiVo have a great time in the UK and manage to find a partner (come on Humax) to re-enter the UK market in a big way. To discuss potential TiVo's return to the UK click here.
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