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Sky unveils Anytime+ VOD service

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Sky Anytime+
Sky has unveiled its forthcoming new Anytime+ service, which will offer Sky subscribers an archive of on-demand movies and TV content over a broadband connection.

At a press briefing today in London, Sky's head of TV services Kathryn Downward said that Anytime+ marks an "evolution not a revolution" of Sky's TV offering. The service will essentially feature a library of content delivered over broadband rather than satellite.

When it launches later in the year, Anytime+ will offer around 1,000 hours of content from Sky Arts, Sky Movies, Sky1 and Sky Sports, along with material from other broadcasters, such as ESPN and National Geographic. A "key focus" for the service will be movies, with around 500 being made available at launch.

Acting as a companion to the existing Anytime service, Anytime+ will be offered without charge to all Sky customers with IP-enabled Sky+ HD boxes. However, access to premium content such as sport and movies will depend on the subscriber's package.

Users must connect their Sky+ HD box via a wired or wireless internet connection to access Anytime+. A Sky-assisted install will carry a "small charge", but customers can handle the implementation themselves for free.

Video on-demand has been somewhat of a hole in Sky's TV offering, particularly compared to Virgin Media's more advanced VOD platform. However, Downward claimed that Sky has waited until the "time is right" to deliver its IP-enabled VOD service.

"For us, it's about putting something out there when our customers are ready, and we think that time is now," said Downward. "For Sky+ customers, Anytime+ really builds on the on-demand options we already have available. Sky+ is the way to catch up on programmes that you have missed, Sky Anytime is a way of discovering new content and Anytime+ builds on that by providing a deep library of TV and movies content."

All Anytime+ content will initially be standard definition to ensure a good quality experience under the confines of available broadband speeds. High definition VOD content will continue to be offered to Sky subscribers over satellite in the Anytime service. However, Downward said that Anytime+ could offer HD content in the future.

The Anytime+ user interface is essentially the same as the existing Anytime electronic programming guide, with a few new additions to improve the experience. Content is split as usual by channel, genre and more specific categories. Sky intends to use a range of editorial tools to flag up content to users, such as an 'Oscars Season' in the movies section. Editorial selections will be refreshed on a daily and weekly basis, with new batches of content being introduced on quarterly cycles.

Content in Anytime+ is supported by progressive download, meaning it downloads in the background while the user is watching. Users can also pause, rewind and fast-forward all available movies and programming.

Among notable new features on the user interface is a 'play' icon, which basically indicates that content is available to play immediately. However, any content not carrying the 'play' icon will require time to download before running entirely without buffering.

Sky Anytime+
Content requiring a download will be managed in the existing Sky+ Planner tool. Users are able to trigger multiple downloads of content at one time, which all funnels into the Planner. The system handles one download at a time, with users able to shuffle their download list to prioritise different content. If users are watching Sky television, then the system also pops up a reminder to indicate when selected content is available to watch.

Movies are typically around 1.3GBs, which takes about one minute to start playing on 2Mbps+ connections, but around 40mins on sub-1Mbps lines. Downloads can also be paused if the user wants to free up their broadband line for another task.

However, a big issue about Anytime+ is that it will initially only be made available to Sky customers with a Sky Broadband connection, meaning anyone on another internet service provider will miss out. Downward said that the reasoning behind this strategy is to enable the "optimum experience" for customers and make it easier to manage technical issues.

"If you imagine if something was to go wrong with the experience, then we would be able to diagnose it at a box level and a network level, and resolve the problem for the customers," she said. "If they were on another ISP, then we would be able to diagnose some of the problem but we would have to hand that customer off to another ISP to sort out the network issues. Until we can be confident that we can deliver a really great end-to-end customer experience, we want to just keep it on the Sky Broadband network."

Among internet service providers, there is an ongoing battle for 'triple play' customers taking a combined package of broadband, TV and landline. Restricting Anytime+ to Sky Broadband subscribers could therefore be viewed as a commercial ploy from Sky.

However, Downward claimed that it is actually about launching a quality service over broadband which Sky can control end-to-end. She also indicated that Sky intends to roll out the service to other ISPs in the future, but that will only occur once the firm is "confident that it will bring the right level of customer experience".

When Sky Player launched on Xbox Live last year, the service was beset with technical problems, due in part to an unexpected level of demand. Sky senior product development manager David Kelly said that one of the main benefits of retaining Anytime+ within Sky Broadband is the ability to optimise the network capacity to ensure that the service is deliverable without issue.

"We have optimised our network so that this service is the best it can be, but another ISP might shape the traffic at primetime, which could mean that content takes longer to stream," said Kelly. "We just want to be able to manage the service before we widen it to other networks. Within our own broadband network, we are more than confident that we can deliver without crashes and so on. We have planned against any major bottle necks on the launch day and we have learnt from past rollouts, so we are very confident that we won't have any major problems."

When asked about plans for 3D content, Downward said that the major priority is getting the linear Sky 3D channel launched to residential homes later in 2010. After that, the team will "consider how to make the most of our platforms", with 3D on-demand "definitely something we are considering".

Anytime+ will launch later in the year, but Sky would not stipulate a more specific timeframe at this stage.

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