Eva Pascoe: Unlike Internet technology, which has developed a solid electronic commerce infrastructure, interactive TV is still in its 'blue sky' phase

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The Independent Culture
Last week, a surprising announcement from Tokyo got all the television folk in Britain hot and bothered. No, it wasn't that long-awaited apology to British POWs. It was an official decision to delay the launch of digital TV until 2003, issued by the Japanese Ministry of Telecommunications, which spread horror in the British broadcasters' canteens.

The Japanese TV industry admitted that only three top regions, Osaka, Tokyo and Nagoya, will be be ready for interactive TV by 2003, and the rest of the country by 2006. The decision was reached after a study of the current technology and the "uncertainties" for the broadcasters (ie, costs of digital roll-out, calculated at the level of a trillion yen, or $7.3bn).

Their decision has brought to light two interesting issues: first, that commercial TV companies are unwilling to throw money into technology research. A few billion dollars is nothing compared with the hundreds of billions being poured into developing the Internet on a daily basis. So the fact that such a small figure put the Japanese broadcasters off signals an end to the myth that TV companies can hack interactive TV on their own.

The announcement from Tokyo also brought home the uncomfortable message that, unlike Internet technology, which over the past four years has developed a solid electronic commerce infrastructure, with major brands securely trading over the Net, interactive TV is still very much in its "blue sky" research phase. That TV networks are backing off pure media research in Japan is understandable, as they are obviously ill-suited to take on Microsoft's aggressive young superbrains in the upcoming TV vs sofa-PC battle. That goes for broadcasting folk world-wide, where technology has so far only tested the brainpower of the post-production room, while the rest of the industry operates in an environment pretty much untouched by change since the Fifties, and where the average executive age is well over 45.

Television's lack of technical IQ perhaps explains the sad saga of interactive TV in our own land, driven by broadcasters despite their lack of rationality, logic and technical know-how. If my money were invested in one of the UK's half-baked attempts, I would be very worried indeed watching the recent squabbles of BDB and BIB over standards for the encoding technology inside the set-top boxes.

Digital terrestrial decoders are at present not standardised and will not be able to access the electronic programme guide and impulse pay-per- view systems in a standard way, thus creating a split in the set-top box market - that is, if there will be any market left after the industry's technical squabbles have put the consumers and developers off interactive TV.

Any media technologist worth her mettle knows that the Internet was only successful as a mass medium because of open standards. These paved the way for your Mac, PC or even a good old Amiga to be able to configure a Netscape or Internet Explorer Web browser and download or buy stuff over the Net. Open standards are good and technology moves fast in the market that broadly supports compatibility. That makes the effort of investing in new enabling technologies a lot more efficient, as more companies can contribute and more consumers benefit from low prices. Distributing investment and research efforts widely has proved the only correct way for innovations to move fast, with all the technical holes being plugged as we go along by many different (therefore cheaper) suppliers. The fact that the middle- aged chaps in the broadcasting industry don't "get it" would seem to indicate that they are in the wrong jobs. In the age of fast innovation, digging yourself into a non-standardised hole is a sure way to technical and financial disaster.

Judging by the explosion of Japanese restaurants in London, we have now completed the transfer from our legacy diet of fish and chips to one more suitable for computer-age living - ie, sushi - as sitting in front of a computer all day doesn't require as many calories as does shovelling coal in Yorkshire. Now it may be wise to follow the Japanese TV bosses and admit that interactive TV will only happen as an extension of the Internet, and only when we find a simple, cheap and seamless way of slotting a PC into the TV set.

The money going into proprietary solutions for BIB or BDB seems like a lot. But if we compare it with the billions of dollars that Silicon Valley has put into semiconductors, PC and Internet infrastructure since 1994, add the billions that the telecommunications industry invests in opening the bandwidth worldwide, not forgetting the billions put into Internet companies like Yahoo by Wall Street, and round that up with the cost of many years of military research in encryption that allows safe electronic commerce to happen, then the local investment in interactive TV looks like a very small fish indeed and certainly no match for the IT industry.

So, short of committing hara-kiri, admitting that alternative routes to interactive TV are dead ends, giving the money back to the investors and waiting two or three more years for the PC industry to sort it out with TV set manufacturers would be the most honourable solution for the broadcasting execs. Investors then could put their money where the real answers are - in technical companies at the forefront of Internet e-commerce, online retailing and publishing, and then watch the developments in the knowledge that their money will be used well.

But relying on ageing, pony-tailed broadcasting executives would be somewhat like waiting for Godot. So I suggest you put money into a Japanese sushi chain, or even Japanese TV networks, since their attitude to technology and shareholders is a lot more realistic than the one displayed by our broadcasters. Meanwhile, I'll waiting for your views on interactive TV.

eva@never.com

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