IPTV: killer apps and dead horses
Proceed with caution...
Mapping and direction services
Google Maps' public API has generated huge levels of innovation among developers on the internet and, provided with open access to an IPTV platform, should be able to do the same for TV. Viewers should be able to very simply enter postcodes to destinations through their remote control (like on a mobile phone keypad, as described later) and see maps of locations on their TV screen, or directions to them using interactivity to explain a route. This type of application, like many others, should be able to be invoked by a broadcasters or operator as part of a normal video broadcast (e.g. "press X to see a map of where this happened/where your nearest store is...").
No self-respecting 'triple play' operator should be without some form of IP telephony control through the TV, as many are now experimenting with. VoIP uses the same type of transit as IPTV, which means it works over the same network and connection, and can talk to a set-top box quite easily. Whether you have a PBX in your home (like the excellent free Asterisk@Home package) or subscribe to an upstream SIP/Softswitch provider like Vonage and Sipgate, a TV can offer a very simple means to use your telephone in new and exciting ways - it's just an IP system that can talk easily to a set-top box with an XML APU or web interface. Get visual caller display on your TV screen when someone is calling in or waiting, see the other person on their 3G video phone, listen to voicemails by browsing them like email, snoop or conference on others' calls, read SMS and MMS messages, interact with IVR applications, or change simple admin settings with your remote control.
Browse movies, photos and music on your home network
Many device manufacturers offer both wired and wireless media player units that plug into your TV via Scart cable and let you watch films, browse photos and listen to music away from your PC. Offering the same on a set-top box is relatively easy, assuming you have a reliable piece of software installed on the PC (simple media server) that will be able to talk to it in a way it understands. The network should be abstracted - devices able to log onto a network with DHCP and use internet connectivity can connect to PCs and other set-top boxes on a home LAN, without needing to be in two separate units. A set-top box should also be able to output a copy of the TV stream it is receiving and displaying as multicast onto the network it is part of, so other devices can reproduce the same TV picture in parallel.
Simple P2P network messaging
Being part of a community and interacting with others is the compelling factor that drives people to revisit social networking sites and keep using communication technology. Set-top boxes are just simple computers that offer very simple software applications that enable people to do the same, but in a considerably more primitive way. Applications need to be able to invoke a simple generic messaging system that allows the direct sending and receiving of simple data between two devices with separate IP addresses - such as photos, very simple text messages and themes. Instant messaging, or other text-intensive services are too much in a TV environment, but the ability to communicate small pieces of information is extremely important.
Loyalty reward schemes
Supermarkets operate loyalty cards with amazing results - the great British love of a bargain is just too much to resist for most people, even if it means giving up information on what they buy to everyone and his dog. Even Sky has tinkered with the idea, but like with others' attempts, all the experiments tended to require a physical card or tedious operating procedure. IPTV systems can implicitly identify who you are, and like in most hotel entertainment systems, can record almost everything you do if needed. Viewers should be rewarded for everything they do on an IPTV system - every transaction they take part in should be registered and credited against their subscription account by either the platform operator or third party content developers (via exposed API), be it viewing movies, listening to music, ordering accessories, sending messages, submitting photos, taking part in multiplayer games, using applications or just looking through content.
The popularity of the latest software applications that help people to discover new music they would like is reaching epidemic proportions, with very good reason. Software like the incredibly fantastic Pandora.com (based on the Music Genome Project and written in Flash) actually understands what a song sounds like to the human ear and can suggest new artists that sound similar, with its natural cousin Last.fm offering the same through human voting and recommendation. Video Networks report that their music video playlisting service (that allows viewers to compile lists of their favourite music videos, fast forward through the selection and effectively create their own TV station/channel) is by far the most popular part of their entire VoD platform. Stim TV offers rapid video previewing of artists for the same purposes, and companies like Shazam enable the identification of music through mobile phones. Having the ability to create, vote on and share playlists of your favourite music is a proven powerful driver of video on-demand.
Photographs on digital cameras tend to be JPEG variants, which can be displayed by PCs and set-top boxes alike - most IP set-top boxes and media players can easily handle displaying hundreds of picture files very easily. The sensation known as Flickr has shown the world how the desire to pass photos around friend can be applied to the larger world with amazing success. Set-top boxes should be able to generate slide shows with background music from photos on the local home network (i.e. from a shared folder on a PC), from webspace or specialised IPTV photo sharing walled garden applications. One of the most fun applications would be to send an MMS picture message from your mobile phone so it appears on your TV screen (MMS messages are typically received by a gateway/mmsc that relays them to an internet server) as part of a blog collection, ready to be shared with all your friends and family.