Tuesday, 8 August 2006

BT Vision: video on demand downloads over broadband






BT had previously announced some details of their plans for TV and video over broadband, to be launched around autumn this year: "BT’s service will be a world first combining access to digital terrestrial channels, an extensive video on demand library and a range of interactive services".

BT Vision

Things seem to be progressing nicely on that front. The new service will be called BT Vision, and will only be available to BT Broadband customers new as well as old. This may be the one thing that'll get me to switch to BT as my ISP (I've been planning to switch for a while as my current ISP is really taking the mick, charging the same amount for the same service to existing customers while other ISPs are charging less for providing more).

You can register on the BT Vision site to get news on BT Vision, which I assume means you'll get an email when it finally launches. The BT Vision site says if you are a BT Vision user you can expect to get:
  • "Access to over 30 Freeview channels through your TV aerial (subject to coverage)
  • Entertainment on demand - A huge library of movies, comedy, music and kids shows that you can order and watch at the touch of a button. And remember there is no compulsory subscription so you can decide how you pay.
  • Catch-up TV - You'll be able to watch a selection of last week's shows you may have missed
  • Digital Video Recorder - Store up to 80 hours of programming - without tapes, timers or disks
  • Communication services - In the future you'll be able to use instant messaging, chat and video telephony all through your TV. You'll be able to control your BT Vision service via the internet whenever you're online."
The original BT press release suggests, and this seems borne out by the info on the BT Vision site, that subscribers will get a Freeview set top box with built-in hard drive, which I assume you will connect to both your computer and your TV, and video downloaded via your computer will get transferred to the box to be played back on your TV.

I've registered with BT Vision for more news, and if you're interested you might as well too. Late last year the BBC tested user downloads to their computers of certain TV programmes (broadcast no more than 7 days before the download date), via the BBC iMP (Integrated Media Player) or MyBBCPlayer software. I took part in the trial and one of my key conclusions was that it wouldn't work for the majority of people because most of us wouldn't want to play shows back just on a computer monitor. Well the provision of a set top box (to be made for BT Vision by Philips, no slouch in things electronic) would certainly address that particular issue. The "catch up TV" feature also suggests BT will at least rival the BBC in making available downloads of the last week's TV programmes.

And the killer app for me is the ability to download videos over your broadband connection and play them back on your TV, saving a trip to the video store - paying for each download, yes, but not having to pay a monthly sub for access to that facility. BT had previously done deals with BBC Worldwide, Paramount and Warner Music Group so as to be able to provide their content, so the variety of downloads should be decent, including blockbuster films. I had considered on and off whether to sign up with Homechoice, which has offered video on demand over broadband in London for some time, but I never did because I wasn't too sure about how broad a choice of movies etc would be available - if they'd published an online programme of movies they could provide, visible to non-subscribers, I could have made my mind long ago, but as they didn't I never got round to trying to find out more and taking the plunge. Now, I think I'm almost sold on the idea of BT Vision - the provision of a digital video recorder as part of the package is a near clincher (though I bet they won't let us archive shows to DVD!).

BT's beta ideas and services site includes links to a discussion forum for BT Vision and an email address to provide feedback on it, but the discussion forum seems noticeably devoid of content at the moment. No doubt as more people discover it it will start getting busy! This is the sort of service I've been wanting for a long, long time and Blockbuster and the like had really better watch out if, or more likely when, BT Vision takes off. Much will of course depend on how competitive their pricing is, and how restrictive their digital rights management, so I'll wait a bit and see - e.g. if you can only play a download once within the first five hours and that's it, that would put me right off it. It has to replicate DVD rentals in terms of playability as much as possible, in my view - except please, please could they let you skip the trailers and ads like you used to be able to with plain video tapes. I hate the way that with DVDs you can't fast forward through ads etc, you're paying for the rental after all, why must you sit through all that too? That "educational" anti-piracy short they often make you endure is almost enough to make one turn to pirated DVDs, I swear - I assume that illegal DVDs would allow you to skip those shorts, anyway!

BT Vision Download

By the way, in case you wonder, the link from the BT Vision site to BT Vision Download is a bit of a red herring. It's nothing to do with their proposed new all singing all dancing "next generation digital TV service". It's supposed to be a slightly different beast, but it's a clever beast all the same.

They are selling DVDs over the Net, but with a twist - while the price is about the same as if you bought the DVD in a shop (new releases from £16.99, classic movies from £7.99), for your money you get not only a physical DVD through the post, which you can play in your DVD player in the usual way, but also, for "a limited period only", the right to download whatever you buy to watch both on your computer (as a Windows Media Video file) assuming it meets the required specs (Windows XP only), and as a "specially formatted video file, optimised for a portable Windows Media player" to play on your personal video player (if it can handle Windows Media Player 10 e.g. Archos AV 700, and Creative Labs Zen Vision and Zen Vision M). The Windows Media-only option must of course be for digital rights management purposes, as DRM is intended to stop you copying the files to give or sell to anyone else.

So you can watch your purchased video on your personal media player and on your PC, all perfectly legally (in fact it's illegal and a breach of copyright in the UK to rip your own paid-for DVDs to watch on your PMP, or to rip your own CDs to play back on your MP3 player, though most British consumers don't realise that this kind of "fair use" is not in fact allowed in the UK under our absurd copyright laws - but that's another story...).

Unlike BT Vision, which hasn't yet launched as I write, the download store is already in operation now. Just be careful though, their site seems a bit dodgy - yesterday when I clicked the BT Vision Download link I kept getting either a blank window (via Firefox) or horrid server errors instead of a Webpage (IE), though viewing it in Opera was fine, and trying to view their "entire FAQs" page kept crashing Internet Explorer, even today - so don't say I didn't warn you!

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