How web TV has upped its PB
The recent Olympiad in China was a chance to see not just record-breaking athletes but also how internet viewing has improved its PB (personal best) since the turn of the millennium, says David Bowen.
The Olympics have one very useful purpose – to enable me to check the progress of the internet every four years. During the recent games I looked back at columns I wrote for previous Olympiads in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, and spent a reasonably happy two weeks keeping an eye on Beijing. What news? And what can I predict for London in 2012?
My Sydney column began “I was running up and down stairs in the early hours of Sunday morning, trying to follow the Olympics on both telly and web. I quickly concluded that they are entirely complementary, and that I needed both rolled into one box. In 2004 I hope to be happily watching the games on my interactive TV”.
That didn’t happen, as I wrote four years later. “A few broadcasters, notably the BBC, have offered ‘interactive’ television coverage, but it is not what I imagined in 2000. I thought my television would offer me a combination of video and infinite statistics on demand. Instead I am just offered extra channels. What’s interactive about that?”.
So I was content back then to sit watching the games on TV, with a wireless-connected laptop giving me stats and background: “This ‘two-screen world’ worked well. I know I am relatively rare in having the equipment to use it, but by the time of Beijing it will surely be widespread”.
From which you may conclude two things. First, doesn’t useful technology spread fast? Wi-fi was cutting edge four year ago; now my mum has it, and doesn’t know it or need to know it. Second, I am quite lousy at forecasting. As I am about to make another forecast, you may want to feed the cat instead of reading on.
But hold. I wish to reclaim some of my honour. “By the time of Beijing we should be able to get a rich combination of video and background material, on one screen or two,” I wrote in 2004. I was right about that. I couldn’t watch these last Olympics much on television because my kids insisted on watching non-stop back-to-back Friends (the real effect of digital TV, none of this interactive nonsense). So I saw them on my computer instead. I used it to see when events were coming up, to look up background, and, of course, to watch them happening, live.
The real change in the past four years is that this is now quite practical, at least for we millions with fast broadband connections. I have a relatively modest connection – around 2,000 kbps– in comparison with what is now being touted. But that is blindingly fast compared with in 2000, when 56 kbps was the norm, and critically better than the 500 or so I had four years ago. The increase in speed, combined with better technology, has turned video from “just about watchable”, as I described it then, to perfectly acceptable now. It goes a little fuzzy if I switch to full screen, but at half screen it’s just like watching a small television.
In other words, I really don’t need two screens – convergence has arrived and it’s come to the computer not the television screen. Why? And why did interactive TV fall so flat? I think it’s to do with usability. A computer keyboard is a sophisticated control device, while a television remote control is crude (and who wants to balance a keyboard on their lap while watching TV?). In hindsight, it was blindingly obvious that real interactive television was not going to work. But you know what they say about hindsight.
Not so live
I was right about something else – well, sort of. In Athens the US networks did not provide live video for fear of cannibalising their TV ad revenue (the BBC did, because it doesn’t carry advertising). What, I wondered, would happen if improved video quality meant that American viewers could simply tune into the BBC web coverage?
I predicted that “in four years time, the US government will be putting pressure to reform the way the BBC is funded, all because of the web”. I was wrong about that, but only because I didn’t realise the BBC had come to the same conclusion. BBC video cannot now be viewed outside the UK and, by the way, NBC video cannot be seen outside the US.
Technology has moved in to sort out a potentially sticky situation. It’s made the worldwide web a bit less worldwide, but that is a probably a sensible compromise.
Now I must make another prediction. Web and television will have converged completely by 2012 and there will not have been much change beyond that. Mobile web will be more advanced and quite run-of-the-mill, but that will not make the screen big enough to watch the Olympics. Come back in four years’ time to read (or maybe see or hear?) me pouring scorn on myself again.
First published on 03 September, 2008