IPTV: killer apps and dead horses

Proceed with caution...

IPTV's Achilles heel

The strength of IPTV is also its Achilles heel. Being connected to the internet and/or global IP backbone means unlimited content in so many forms - unlimited TV channels, unlimited movies, videos and music and software applications galore. Anyone should be able to develop and innovate content that can be viewed by an IP set-top box. IPTV is at its most powerful when it is unleashed as an open platform for everyone to participate in, not locked into a limited walled-garden environment controlled by a specific brand. That ability to extend and innovate differentiates it from its competitors and allows it to evolve as the audience's taste does. But the very first thing the marketing and PR departments of the big players will harp on about defensively will be a claim that the sheer amount of content available on IPTV platforms is difficult to find, confusing to use and of variable quality. The moral of the story is if you plan to use unlimited content as a selling point, you better had the world's easiest way of finding your way around it.

But the trouble is, how do we find our way around all that content? An EPG and a select button is just not enough anymore. Traditional TV gives channels individual numbers and easy menu systems to navigate through them. Telephones use geographic dialling codes and individual number strings, and mobile phones use simple shortcodes. Web browsers and media software on a computer have shortcuts, links and address bars. As Sky has realised, IPTV currently has no accepted standard way to browse, discover and subscribe to new services. It's difficult to use URLs or protocol addresses like http://, numeric shortcodes do not convey what the service is (let alone the reported quality and/or popularity of its content) and text shortcodes (like a TV version of domain names) are limited. The immediate text entry-free method would be to have visual prompts on-screen inviting a viewer to subscribe to, or add a shortcut, a new service, in the same way current "press red"-style applications do today. Installing those shortcuts so they are ever-present on the TV guide means building an EPG menu system that is easy to navigate through, as screen real estate is highly limited on a TV.

The simple fact is whoever answers that problem will provide the de facto MO for all IPTV services that come after it, and that person will almost certainly become very rich indeed. Building an intelligent "service manager" application requires a mixture of seamlessly intuitive user interface design and intelligence from back-end servers that store personalisation data. The natural and trusted way people communicate in everyday life is through recommending things to others and looking to see what is popular. The best known popularity algorithm is Google's search engine technology - links to websites are treated as votes or endorsements to the quality of the information they point to. Google glues the web together - it is what fills in the gap between viewing different websites, a structured and useful way to navigate through all the 600bn pages on the internet before you bookmark them. You can't put a search engine on an EPG (very sloppy thinking), but what we do need is a mechanism for gluing those TV services together that a) does not confine us to a branded walled garden, b) requires little or no text entry, c) allows us to promote services over others, and d) keeps us in reach of the EPG at all times.

An important principle to bear in mind is that just because you can port anything to IPTV doesn't mean you should. Quality assurance (QA) is a very tricky game, as is parental content control, simply because with so much content it is very difficult to check every screen and video manually on a platform that is inherently open as its very nature. Many extremely powerful and appealing web applications just won't work on TV, or may work but not generate any money. The latter isn't so much of a worry when the software is on the net and not costing you hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in distribution costs, but still needs to be at the heart of any commercial service.

As The Usability Company say, "if they can't use it, they won't use it". There is potential for very serious sin on an IPTV platform in terms of content authoring. So if you thought blinking text, flash intro movies and popup windows were bad, TV is 1000 times less tolerant of such evil. Its time to pick up your crucifix, garlic and holy water, take a deep breath and get ready to look horror directly in the face. Among the candidates for immediate euthanasia are problems like...

Don’t get in the way of the TV

First and foremost, IPTV is about TV. As obvious as that may sound, it's not generally understood by a lot of content developers. Clutter isn't acceptable or even practical. That little box in the corner of the room is for video and awful reality shows, not cool software applications, as much as we love them. A PAL TV picture in the UK, despite always having overscan, is 720 pixels wide by 576 pixels high before taking into account the so-called "safe area" where graphics can be placed, and has a tiny fraction of the colours of a PC monitor available to it. That's not a whole lot of room for anything. We're talking big, blocky graphics with simple gestures on the remote control. TV is about pictures, and text longer than five or so words is pointless and annoying. Look on any mainstream channel and you will see almost half the screen is already taken up by logos what the campaign for Logo Free TV identify as "branding, idents, emblems, DOGs and Bugs", to you and me, visual noise or "screenjunk". Just don't do it.

TV keyboards and typing

Bad, bad, bad idea. A TV is not a PC, and it never will be. Mass market viewers will never feel comfortable using a keyboard with a television, no matter how hard vendors protest. It just won't happen. It just sucks, pure and simple - it's either a TV or a PC, not anything in the middle. The devices themselves are hideously ugly (usually semi-transparent plastic), have the feel of cheap plastic, are insanely unreliable and cost too much for the benefit anyone derives from them. TVs aren't meant for text entry - who on earth is going to use a "contact us" style form on an IPTV screen instead of making a phone call? It's just too much hassle. Most broadcasters offering "web chat" - style services have been forced to get people to "write" in their chat messages by sending a text message. And that is the answer to this particular problem - avoid text entry at all costs, but use the remote control keypad like a mobile phone number pad for entering text if absolutely necessary.

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