High-tech TV might mean a clutter of hardware, writes PETER GRIFFIN.
It has been greeted with much hype overseas, but interactive TV - the technology that will allow you to e-mail your friends, pay your mortgage and watch re-runs of Coronation Street, all through your TV - could struggle to get off the ground because of a lack of common standards.
Overseas, several companies - from big-league players such as Microsoft and America Online through to start-ups including TiVo and Replay - are scrambling to sign up subscribers. But they are overlooking the need for global standards allowing each operators' equipment and applications to talk to each other.
Viewers who have bravely ventured into interactive TV have so far been chained to a particular operator, using a particular set-top box, and can view only certain content.
Locally, you can subscribe to Sky's 40-odd digital channels and receive one set-top box. Want greater interactivity? Add ihug's SurfBoard, a set-top box offering that allows users to surf the web and send e-mails via their TV. A TelstraSaturn/TVNZ set-top box will also soon join the mix.
The amount of equipment you can adorn your TV with is significant, but a standard letting the devices work together is elusive.
Hardware manufacturers, in particular, are campaigning for open, non-proprietary standards. Consumer electronics giant Philips is pushing for interactive TV to be set up on the PC model, so that consumers can buy a set-top box and choose which platform, broadcaster and ISP they want to subscribe to.
Philips, which has 24.3 per cent of the New Zealand consumer electronics market, is among 200 companies which have pledged support for a platform known as the Multimedia Home Platform (MHP), a generic interface that allows interactive digital applications to communicate with hardware devices. It would be an extension of digital video broadcasting (DVB), the standard widely recognised by digital broadcasters.
According to Philips, MHP would extend the existing, successful DVB platform to all transmission networks, including satellite, cable, terrestrial and microwave systems, as well as the full range of interactive TV content.
Christian Lake, the company's European head of business development for consumer electronics, believes that the emergence of interactive TV means "prime-time will be any time" as viewers choose when to receive programming.
But speaking last week at Philips' annual media conference in Bali, the Amsterdam-based executive warned that existing interactive TV systems such as TiVo, which Philips has invested in, and the Microsoft-backed Web TV, would continue to struggle unless there were common, non-proprietary standards.
The likes of TiVo and arch-rival Replay let you add interactivity to your TV with the addition of digital recording devices. Both allow you to record hours of programming, search and record content and pause live TV shows.
But TiVo has attracted only 150,000 users since its US launch 18 months ago. Philips attributes the lacklustre response to bad marketing and a complex subscription model.
Similar problems have struck Microsoft's interactive TV platform, Web TV. The service initially experienced good sales in the US, but up to 40 per cent of users discontinue their subscription after one year, said Mr Lake.
"Compared with DVB, TiVo is not a success. You could say it's a disappointment.
"There are a lot of services available but they are all isolated. They all require different devices and service providers. Without an open standard, interactive TV will not be a success."
David Plummer, general manager of business development at TelstraSaturn, said the company had not yet settled on the standard that would underpin its interactive TV venture with TVNZ, but "definitive" details of the partnership would be announced this month.
"It's a fairly confused picture at the moment," he said.
"It's likely that where we can, we will go for acknowledged industry standards rather than highly proprietary systems."
Whatever standard TelstraSaturn and TVNZ go for, it is unlikely to be compatible with Sky TV's Open TV standard, a situation that would see customers need two set-top boxes to access programming from both operators.
Sky's director of communications, Tony O'Brien, said that was already the situation for many customers in Wellington.
Sky begins downloading Open TV software to customers' digital decoders this month and a staggered release of interactive services will follow, starting with an interactive programming guide.
An interactive games package and an interactive weather channel allowing Sky customers to view forecast information for particular regions will be available next month.
E-mail access via the tube will be possibly in July, when wireless keyboards will be issued to users. Set-top decoders that incorporate hard drives, allowing the digital storage of programmes, are also on the cards for late 2002, based on a system called XTV being employed by the Rupert Murdoch-owned European satellite operator, BSkyB.
But, ultimately, there must be more to interactive TV than digital video recorders, e-mail access and limited web browsing.
While Sky will look to introduce "t-commerce" early next year, allowing the convenience of buying certain products via your TV, don't expect to be surfing the web from your couch any time soon.
"Full internet access via the TV is not Sky's intention," said Mr O'Brien.
Viewers will increasingly expect to be able to access programme-related content, hang out in chatrooms and play games using the TV. But the features that will serve to lure consumers away from the PC screen are still a long way off.
And while Sky is unclear how users will be charged for the services, early adopters in New Zealand might face hefty set-up costs and continuing charges if overseas examples are anything to go by.
At present most interactive TV services require a payment of up to $US300 ($750) for a set-top box plus monthly fees that can come on top of existing pay-TV subscriptions.
* Disclosure: Peter Griffin visited the Philips Asia Pacific Media Conference as a guest of Philips.