The development of YouView has been a long and arduous affair, not just because of the technical hurdles, but because of other broadcasters and rights-holders. The service started as a brilliant notion that IP TV was quickly becoming a reality, and that there should be a Freeview-like service to capitalise on it.
First called Project Canvas, the BBC was going to be a very strong lead - and why not, iPlayer is the best catch-up service in the UK, particularly in speed, UI design and picture quality. But, sadly, the other broadcasters involved had a problem with the bossy BBC.
Too many cooks, not enough BBC
Early on in the process, there were some complaints that the BBC was too involved, the BBC Trust got involved, and the corporation took a backseat in the development. This is a huge mistake. Like the BBC or not, it gets things right more often than not. And iPlayer is a triumph in a way that Demand 5 and the hopeless ITV player are not. What YouView needed to be, really, was iPlayer in a box for every channel.
Instead of the BBC, we got a committee of people from all of the country's biggest broadcasters. That the finished product has launched at all, under these circumstances, is remarkable. The problem is, while the UI starts unified, when you go into the specific content, you get a branded player with a branded experience. Rights-holders always pull this sort of stunt; it's incredibly predictable.
Pig-headed rights holders
And that leads us on to the rights-holders. We might have just called them pig-headed, but it's nearly impossible to conceive a world in which broadcasters would allow their content to be chucked in to one central, unbranded player. And, indeed, they didn't allow this, so what you have on YouView is a series of interfaces for each. The BBC content appears in the iPlayer interface, and everyone elses in theirs.
This is great if you run a TV channel, but it's arguably a very poor user experience for the consumer. Wouldn't it make MUCH more sense to use a system like Radio Player, where every station is branded, but each shares a player interface? That system works because it's seamless and gives almost unlimited choice and you can expect that the broadcaster screens will have different icons for the same thing. Perhaps this is planned for the future, but right now it's confusing to have to think in traditional broadcast terms.
With that said, we're thrilled to have the main broadcasters in one place. It makes a big difference, and is annoyingly rare even on the millions of connected devices on the market.
It's been said a lot, but £300 is a lot of money. In fact, this worries me less than the other problems with the service because the price will meet what people are prepared to pay. If, like me, you aren't willing to cough up that much money, then it's a fair guess that the cost will come down.
Also, price is relative. At the moment, with the catch-up services and Freeview HD being the main proposition, the cost is too high. But if the YouView people can add some value, then I can see viewers being attracted to the boxes. Lord Sir Amstrad himself has said there will be dozens of new services in the near future. You can launch a channel on YouView for £50,000, according to his estimates, which could make for some interesting stuff turning up, but it could also mean that the device quickly gets cluttered with umpteen shopping channels.
Cost of development
For the kind of money that has been thrown at YouView, I would have expected more. It's not that the product doesn't have promise, and I'm sure the platform has a lot to offer, but right now, that price appears to be a lot of money to make an UI in which you can "scroll both ways". The idea of that is to allow people to catch up without searching for shows, but, as it turns out, this feature is coming to Freeview HD PVRs too, making the advantages of YouView even less obvious.
Lord Sugar called the development costs "cheap". We'll happily agree with that once we've seen how easy it is for companies to develop apps and services for it. If YouView can do for TV what Apple did for phone app stores, then it could be the biggest deal in TV history, anywhere in the world.
Most of all though, I am of the opinion that the delivery has been rushed. The slightly lacklustre services at launch imply that, to get the service out in time for the Olympics, things have been dropped. Of course, there's no way to know what, because there's never really been much announced beyond the main TV channels, who are investors.
That is, in part, the fault of people like me, who have bemoaned the long wait for this service. Lord Sugar had mentioned the end of 2012 as a final launch date, but there was such outrage at this that things seem to have been brought forward.
Full IPTV would be better
While Freeview HD is a good service, I think that over-the-air broadcast is an outdated model. If YouView had wanted to change the world of TV, it should have been an IPTV-only affair. No aerial sockets, just an Ethernet (or Wi-Fi) socket and access to the online world.
Of course, this is bandwidth-hungry, and much of the UK still doesn't have the sort of broadband that would support this, but sometimes the services have come first and the infrastructure needs to follow. With the government committing to extend fast access to everyone in the country, things should start to get better. And BT's Infinity, and similar fibre services actually go some way to solve many of these issues - rural areas become less reliant on a phone exchange being close to them.
But, IPTV means that quality can be constantly increased over time. With Freeview and Freeview HD the reverse is true, our TV pictures have been getting steadily worse in quality for years as more and more shopping channels and commercial nonsense pollute the airwaves. IPTV could be terrific for people on fast broadband, but it could still be made to work on 4-15MB speed connections too. And let's be honest, YouTube or services like Netflix don't worry about such things, and broadband has constantly increased to meet the public's needs when it comes to watching cats riding on vacuum cleaners in 1080p.
YouView has sparked a lot of anger, a lot of which I believe is justified. That's not to say that YouView can't be a really good product, but right now it looks like a slightly more advanced version of Freeview HD or the Apple TV or Roku. Frankly, Freeview HD is so good that YouView was always going to have a tough time wowing us.
And I take some responsibility here: the press has put a lot of pressure on YouView to launch quickly, and there's every chance that's why it's not a fully-featured proposition at launch.
So while I'm cross, and feel a bit let-down, it's not all doom and gloom. The future for YouView could be bright, but the next year will be absolutely crucial. And something needs to be done about that price too...
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