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Virgin's web TV walled garden

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:50 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

2011 looks set to be the year when the long-awaited marriage between television and the internet is finally sealed. Google TV, already out in the United States, should be in Europe soon, and YouView, the internet TV joint venture berween the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, will be coming along in the spring.

This morning Virgin Media unveiled a product which claimes to be ahead of the game, a set-top box which it describes as "the UK's first next-generation entertainment platform". Virgin is using TiVo, which pioneered digital television recording, to power a service which it claims will bring together TV, on-demand and the web in one box.

Users will now be able to do all the things they can already do on any personal video recorder, plus get access to over 4,000 hours of on-demand content - mostly the last week's programmes from the main channels - and a variety of web applications. Most of the television content will still arrive via the Virgin network, but a 10Mbps modem in the box will make sure those apps, which provide access to YouTube and to social networks, run smoothly.

Screengrab of Virgin TiVo service


That 10mbps will in effect be a separate motorway to the web, and customers will continue to use their standard internet connection for general surfing. I was given a quick run-through of the service this morning by Virgin Media's director of digital entertainment Cindy Rose.

At first, it all looked very familiar, with an electronic programme guide (EPG) from which you can view or record programmes - although on this EPG you can go back in time to select something you missed earlier in the week. The real difference showed up when Cindy searched for a favourite programme, House. As well as recent episodes of the medical drama, she was able to get information about the cast and then click through to other programmes in which they featured.

So we ended up with an episode of Friends, in which the House star Hugh Laurie appeared. From there, we could go to a Friends "blooper" tape on YouTube. What you won't get from Virgin's version of "web TV" is any real feeling of being on the web. This is very much a walled garden approach - you don't get a browser, and Virgin Media decides which apps you can have, from a very limited menu at the moment.

"You can't plug your laptop into our box," said Cindy Rose firmly. "There's no access to the open internet". It's a big contrast to what the likes of Google TV and YouView are promising viewers, but she believes this will be a selling point: "It's different from every other connected TV proposition on the market. It's the first time we are able to showcase the power of our network in entertainment."

And by separating its online television content from general web surfing, the company claims it will offer a better experience than services which will fight for bandwidth out on the open internet.

I asked whether companies like the movie subscription service Lovefilm would be allowed onto the TiVo box - and was told that might be possible if a deal could be done. But the walled garden approach means Virgin has the final say on what its customers can do - so if it decides it would rather they could only choose the in-house movies, that's what will happen.

So what we're seeing is two different philosophies about internet connected televsion. Platforms like Google TV - and to a lesser extent YouView - believe that the viewer wants the freedom to pull all sorts of content from the web onto the big screen. Virgin Media thinks viewers want a little more connectivity but would still prefer to sit back and let someone else manage the shape of their viewing experience.

So far, web users have preferred the "born free, roam wild" approach - whereas, despite the proliferation of channels and the arrival of on-demand TV, most viewing is still of the traditional "turn it on and see what's on" variety. Over the next year we will find out which philosophy works best when you bring TV and the web together.


  • Comment number 1.

    Rather than worrying about "the UK's first next-generation entertainment platform" Virgin should think about putting a decent size hard drive in their V+ so you can actually use it to record more than 20 hours of HD.

  • Comment number 2.

    A similar issue to your EU v Google blog - large companies apparently restricting consumer choice by ensuring that devices (in Virgin's case) or high search rankings (in Google's case) keep the consumer within areas that the company can profit from. Vodafone try it too with their Vodafone 360 offering - and I'm sure there are many others.

    Google succeeds because the core reason people go there, the search, is good, and any alleged tinkering is not visible to the consumer. Vodafone fails and Virgin will too, because the restrictions are too onerous and too visible. It's almost a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act to call it "Web TV" - because you're not accessing the web, just a very small part of it. I like Virgin, a lot - but I fear they've misjudged this one.

  • Comment number 3.

    I agree with 1. and 2.

    With the proliferation of HD channels, the current disk size is just not good enough, though the overall V+ experience to record and control viewing is generally fine. If I'm watching House and I want information, I'll use an IMDB app on my smartphone, so won't interfere with other's viewing.

    I think this is a misjudgement; sending the Virgin support staff round to swap disks to larger ones would make customers happier....

  • Comment number 4.

    As someone who bought the original UK TiVo in 2000, and was saddened to see it leave the UK market only a few years later when overtaken by the vastly inferior Sky+, I welcome the return of TiVo. Its user interface is a revelation to use, much friendlier and easier than any of the alternatives, yet also more powerful than most. Sky, who did the marketing for TiVo in the UK, didn't do them any favours... unsurprising really, given the impending launch of Sky+ at the time. Yet Sky+ has caused more missed programmes, dropped series links and ground teeth than any other piece of audio-visual technology I've ever used. I'd love to get one of these new TiVos, and if it continues the trends that the predecessor box began, it'll be a huge success.

    My only regret about the Virgin TiVo is that I can't get one unless they allow it to work with non-Virgin broadband providers - I'm not in a Virgin cabled area, and unless they spend some serious cash on upgrading Milton Keynes's awful analogue cable network, I'm unlikely ever to be.

  • Comment number 5.

    Did Virgin speak to local Councils / Government about apps to provide people with online services through the new V+ box?

    Simplicity won when it came to the PVR recorders - Sky and V+ boxes were simple because they were integrated, as is Freeview plus. It's a very different proposition to integrate the content of the entire internet.

    On the limited 'walled garden' approach: few people complain about Apple's way of doing things on the iPhone - if they don't like it, it doesn't go in. Virgin can do the same, and might offer a more reliable service as a result?

  • Comment number 6.

    Atleast somebody is trying to compete with YouView. Even if it is only an internet connected TV, no more than a Samsung or a Sony with their widgets.

    With GoogleTV having its wings clipped by the content providers and TvCatchUp being taken to the courts (Thank you ITV, C4 and Five - not!) YouView has a clear run at getting into peoples homes.

    I don't like the idea of trying to surf on a 50 inch TV (maybe Steve Jobs sold me on that one) but I want to have the choice of how I get my IPTV.

  • Comment number 7.

    Interestingly, If you can access YouTube from within its 'walled garden' Google must have sanctioned this. In which case they can't see this as competition to GoogleTV.

  • Comment number 8.

    To understand this you have to understand the business model. Its not about Virgin having a different vision of the future to google (even if they say that), its about where you make your money.
    Google make money from open content, adverts associated with everyones else's content. So they will have as open a platform as they can, let others pay for the bandwidth and ride on top.
    Virgin Media make their money from selling TV programs and content, and providing broadband. So Virgin Media has to restrict the content to stuff that you pay for, and steer clear of free stuff that uses all the bandwidth that Virgin has to pay for.
    This is not a clash of ideas, its simple business.
    Show me a virgin executive that proposes giving for free a box that just eats all the virgin bandwidth while people use other companies content...and I'll show you an executive with a P45.
    They are not big bad companies for doing this, they have to make the business model pay.
    - from an ex cable executive

  • Comment number 9.

    oh by the way, in 2002 I think Cable and Wireless which became NTL, which became Virgin Media had Cable TV boxes that not only allowed open web surfing but also provided an ethernet connector on the back that you could plug your computer into and get access to the high speed cable network (assuming you paid for that service). The web surfing used an intermediary server to simplify content so the smaller processor and limited memory of the set top box could cope. Rather similar to some mobile phone services that repackage content for mobile.

    So nothing new. And there are several UK companies desperately trying to get their IP based set top boxes adopted in large numbers, frustrated by the lack of cheap bandwidth (you need a lot).

    So the google box is not ground breaking. But then apple was not the first to produce a hard disk music player, but it made the ipod environment attractive with itunes and a nice product. Its done it again with the iphone, the tech was mostly there, but the app environment and nice touch interface were not.

    So its the company that provides the attractive package that will make this internet tv finally take off, the tech already exists.

  • Comment number 10.

    @Steve Arnold (#1) the new V+ TiVo box will have a 1Tb HDD - has been well-documented.

  • Comment number 11.

    Here's something that rings alarm bells:

    "That 10mbps will in effect be a separate motorway to the web, and customers will continue to use their standard internet connection for general surfing."

    Given that Virgin's existing 10mbps service already struggles in some locations, it seems logical that in order to ensure good service from their webTV box, Virgin may have to prioritise traffic for it.

    If they do have to do this, it is bad news for users of "ordinary" Virgin cable modems (like me).

  • Comment number 12.

    U.K is way behind South Korea. By 2012 South Koreans will be enjoying 1Gbps Broadband Connections and increasing to 5Gbps by 2015. While in 2015, the U.K will be struggling with 200Mb broadband connection. See what a lack of investment, mismanagement and corruption does.

  • Comment number 13.

    The Tivo boxes will most likely use a different set of frequencies than the cablemodems so they shouldn't clash like you fear.


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