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Why IPTV will change the world … well at least the world of TV

In the decade after the Second World War, the art & science of modern Marketing were invented and brought the world economy into a new age. Services delivered over an IP network, like IPTV, are bringing something as momentous forward.

In an article I wrote in 2006 for the Technology Review’s inaugural French edition (it actually got published in the second), I drew a parallel between IPTV and the printing press.

IPTV has to first be TV before it can be anything else. Indeed even in today’s Web 2.0 world, users will never try all the great new IPTV services including niche – long tail & interactive content, personalisation or community services, if you don’t first give them some real TV. If THE content people want isn’t available IPTV – or any other TV – providers will have a problem. To start with IPTV doesn’t necessarily innovate. It is bringing us something we’ve had for half a century. Sure we’ve gone from Black & White to colour TV, image resolution has improved along with sound quality and even 3D is on its way, but the basic live TV service is the same.

Electronic Program Guides (EPG) are becoming the norm, offering instant access to at least the program title, schedule and a short description. But these are linked to digital TV, not necessarily IPTV. Other services not necessarily requiring IP include Personal Video Recorders (PVR) which have advantageously replaced VHS video recorders to make recording programs easier and even let you record straight off the program guide or via a web site or mobile phone interface. But common man’s life will be more radically changed by the IP part of IPTV than the TV part.

So if the TV in IPTV is still TV, it must be the IP that’s the printing press.

TV preceded IPTV by decades just like manuscripts preceded Guttenberg’s printing press by dozens of generations.

By innovating in the way written works were duplicated and disseminated throughout communities and beyond, Gutenberg changed society forever.

But it took generations of writers to realise the potential of books over manuscripts. Political pamphlets and newspapers are examples of world-changing output from the printing press but these only had a measurable impact a few generations after Guttenberg.

It’s taking IPTV a lot less time to realise the potential of IP. The first real deployments are a decade old and the first large scale deployments are half that age.

When TV is delivered though an IP network, be it the Internet or a private network, a unique one-to-one bi-directional relationship is created between the service provider and the end user. This will open up a world of new services targeting much smaller audiences that can be scattered around the globe like Diasporas. A VoD session can even be seen as a service being sold to an individual household.

In 2000 the Internet infrastructure couldn’t cope with video streams. YouTube alone has shown that that it now can. As long as some form of net-neutrality can be maintained, new “narrow cast” services like many of the long gone Web-TVs of the Internet bubble are at last viable. Digital catalogues have reached critical size so that however unusual, there will always be some content to cater for your interests. So if content remains king in the IPTV world, he’s growing a “long tail”.

Let’s just stop for minute; think what that implies going back to the world economy as it emerged from the Second World War. After the Marshall plan put European economies into forward gear, a relatively long period of prosperity ensued.

The basic operational model for most businesses was this: to optimise production, create a stock of goods (or services) then get a sales force to sell as much as possible. In the relationship between a company and its customers, it was always about pushing as much stock as possible from the stockpile to the customer and optimising that flow as seen from the companies side. It took a particularly astute and creative sales person to ask a few simple questions:

  • How do our customers perceive our products?
  • Why would they choose one brand over another?
  • What features would make my product more valuable?
  • How might they “feel” if our product or service was unavailable?
  • Once my product has been bought, how is it used in my customer’s home?

This was a radical change and we are looking at the relationship from the customer’s perspective for the first time and talking about the invention of “Marketing” itself.

My premise is that with IPTV as well as other IP based services we are very much in the position of a salesman of the late fifties. Indeed we can design, build and deliver a leading edge IPTV service, but once it has left our “factory floor” and reaches people homes, just like the goods of the fifties, its gets used and perceived in a ways we don’t really understand.

We have all experienced frustrating times talking to customer support about issues we are having with our ISP, VoIP or IPTV service. The customer representative invariably makes us do stupid things like check the mains power socket, but if they do listen to our specific issues they rarely understand – let alone have a solution. Why is it so hard to manage the Quality of Experience in the IP world?

One reason is that contrary to the tangible goods of the fifties and sixties, IP services don’t actually exist until they are consumed. Indeed it is difficult to improve the experience of a Video on Demand session in advance. This is one of the reasons the whole science of marketing has to be adapted to the world of IP.

One last point shows how fundamental the changes we are talking about are. The heavy investment big names like Google or Yahoo! are making in the TV space is telling. I don’t believe Yahoo!’s current set of TV widgets providing news, weather & stock market information in their current form as an overlay will change the world, but they are showing the way. For such initiatives to succeed, at least three breakthroughs are necessary.

The first is in the TV ecosystem, which has to enable the free flow of new services and content so that whoever has a good idea for a widget or new service can somehow provide it. This is like Apple’s AppStore on the iPhone.

The second major shift required is in the TV service interface. Indeed, with a Standard Definition (i.e. non HD) screen and a regular remote control it is hard to behave differently than a “couch potato”.

Thirdly widgets to make an impact on the living room experience, they will have to become truly interactive with the content itself, a bit like with the demos NDS gave at the 2009 IBC.

So in the end IPTV isn’t just another bit of technology but a new paradigm. We are so close to TV that we probably won’t realise the world is changing until someone tells us it already has.

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