Who will want YouView?

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Media captionSir Alan Sugar makes his YouView pitch to Rory Cellan-Jones

The call came through from the great man's office. "Please present yourself at County Hall at 09:30 Lord Sugar has something very exciting that he wants to show you." OK, that's not quite how it went but it did feel like an episode of The Apprentice as we trooped into the grand if poorly lit former London County Council chamber for the unveiling of YouView.

Lord Sugar and the bosses of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, BT and TalkTalk were launching a service which makes a big promise. YouView is supposed to be the missing link which finally brings TV and the internet together, finally putting services like the iPlayer and 4OD direct onto your television in a seamless way.

But in this episode of The Apprentice, the boot was on the other foot with Lord Sugar facing some tough questions about the business and its prospects of success. The veteran entrepreneur turned reality television star was brought in as chairman of YouView last year. The much-delayed project appeared to be going nowhere and his job was to knock heads together and get various partners from the broadcasters and internet providers to agree on a way forward.

That he seems to have achieved, and by getting a product out in time for the Olympics - just - one target has been hit. The interface we saw demonstrated by Richard Halton, YouView's chief executive, looked like a user-friendly way of finding and viewing programmes from all the main Freeview channels.

Image copyright youview
Image caption Users can use the service to access programmes they missed broadcast up to seven days earlier

The electronic programme guide for the Humax set-top box - the only device available at launch - allows you to record future programmes in a way which will be familiar to owners of Sky+ and other personal video recorders. But you can also go back several days to view programmes you have missed on the BBC, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5. There should be more content from other providers too, notably Sky's forthcoming Now TV which will enable viewers to pay for movies and later sport without needing a satellite dish.

So far, so good Lord Sugar - but then came the tricky questions from the panel of experts in the form of a pack of cynical media correspondents - £299 for a set-top box - isn't that a bit steep for a product aimed at people who don't want to pay for satellite or cable? We were told that launch products always looked pricey, and that Lord Sugar would not be surprised if YouView boxes were selling at £99 in a couple of years. Which begs the question - why would you buy one now?

The prospects for YouView may actually depend on the two ISP partners, BT and TalkTalk. Together they have millions of broadband customers - if they can offer them attractive packages which include a YouView box, then maybe we will see substantial numbers coming to the platform in the coming months.

But there are also questions over the hardware on offer. Why, Lord Sugar was asked, were there not alternative cut-down devices which just allowed consumers to stream with YouView without recording programmes? I'm not sure we got a satisfactory answer, though it seems likely that more devices and maybe even televisions with an integrated YouView service will be available soon.

The biggest disappointment for me was that the Humax box is not wi-fi capable. You'll have to plug in an ethernet cable to get it online, and for many people whose internet connection isn't in their living room that will be an issue.

When I spoke to Lord Sugar after the launch, he was in typically combative mood, amazed that I could possibly think that the YouView box was a bit expensive and a bit late. When I suggested that there were other cheaper devices out there he dismissed them as not providing anything like the same user experience. Google TV, for instance, was just Chrome stuck on a television.

In some ways he is right - nobody has quite cracked the conundrum of combining the ease of use of television with the choice and flexibility of the internet. YouView does look as though it offers something new, but the question is how big an audience will want it at the current price.

Lord Sugar ended our chat with an invitation. Come back in two years, he told me, and you'll find that YouView has become the standard way for people who want TV but don't want a subscription to get it. That's a big claim - so I've put an entry in my diary for 4 July 2014 to meet Lord Sugar and confirm that his prediction has come true.