Virgin's web TV walled garden
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.
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.