Opinion

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The race to change TV

The impending UK launch of Google TV is the latest in a long line of attempts to combine two media.

Back in the late Pleistocene period (1997 I think) I went along to the launch of WebTV in the UK. There was a lot of excitement; the business had already been acquired by Microsoft for $425m.

Of course, it crashed during the presentation, which, if nothing else, gave all the Mac users something to feel smug about, and then went on to rise without trace in the UK (although it was more successful in the US). The venture was about putting the web on TV. What if we could put TV on the web, then, er, put it on TV?

That's the idea behind Google TV (GTV), due to launch soon in the UK.

Available via a set-top box or embedded in Sony TVs, GTV brings programmes to the viewer through its interesting, if clunky, search interface, bypassing the traditional scroll-and-roll menu used by most cable and satellite companies.

Of course, YouTube is central to the strategy, and the $100m it has committed to producing professional content (to put it in context, that's less than 10% of ITV's budget), together with the reformatting of YouTube to widescreen are signs it is serious about the venture.

However, like BT, another company historically dominated by engineers, Google isn't a content company. BT has had at least three attempts at being a TV/cable company and the latest, BT Vision, has hardly enjoyed unmitigated success, with about 575,000 customers (Sky has more than 10m).

Changing TV is hard, and in this context it's perhaps not surprising that Google's second go at TV hasn't cracked it. The price of boxes has been slashed from $250 to $99, and content is starting to look a bit more Desmond than Disney. For example Vivid, the porn production company, will launch, among other things, its SOS: Sex on the Streets show on Google TV, recommending trying parked cars, elevators and even the Grand Canyon. In the circumstances, I don't think it feels the need for innuendo.

Google and BT aren't alone in the struggle to bring web-delivered TV to our living rooms. The great champion of accessible consumer technology, Apple, has had two tries so far and is working on a third now, rumoured to include the Siri voice-control system introduced in the latest iPhone a few weeks ago. In the US, movies from Netflix are offered; in the UK, the elegant navigation isn't challenged by having very much to, well, navigate.

So, individually, none of these devices has exactly set consumers' pulses racing. It's tempting to think, then, that it isn't happening, and that we don't need to do anything about it. The reality is very different. Although we are far from seeing a clear winner emerging in the IPTV world, there are many contestants, who, together, are making inroads and getting consumers used to the idea they might not have to wait for Coronation Street to start.

There are several different platforms to watch IPTV on: phone, tablet, Blu-ray, game console, PC, cable, streaming device and smart TV. All the broadcasters have their own services, led by iPlayer, which also acts as a portal into other broadcasters like ITV Player and 4OD (though notably not Sky). There are also aggregator platforms such as TV Catchup, which bravely seems to compete with iPlayer.

Non-traditional players are working to break in to the market; there is YouTube, as mentioned above, but also LoveFilm and MSN, both of which are learning that it's not necessarily the programme formats one would expect that succeed online.

Access, devices, content. There's a wave of activity out there as suppliers wrestle both to create something consumers can use and be the one they choose, and meaningful levels of audience showing that demand is strong. The one thing there isn't is a clear roadmap for advertising.

Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist

30 SECONDS ON ... GOOGLE TV

- Google TV is an attempt by the brand to bring its web success to the small screen.

It provides subscription and free on-demand content through set-top boxes and branded TV sets.

- The product has received a lukewarm reaction from US consumers since it launched there in October 2010. Google responded by introducing a revamped 2.0 version last month. It offers new features, and Google claims it is easier to use. It comes built in on certain Sony TV models and Logitech international set-top boxes. Google TV is scheduled to launch in the UK early next year.

- While the project has not been successful so far, Google has said it sees it as a 'long-term bet', and experts say the company cannot ignore TV, particularly as distinctions between the web and more traditional media fade.

- A crucial factor could be Google's planned $12.5bn acquisition of Motorola Mobility, as the electronics company makes set-top boxes as well as mobile phones.