Virgin joins Tivo to unveil 'next generation' TV box

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The Independent Online

Virgin Media yesterday unveiled its latest television set-top box, which has been in the works for more than a year, and claimed it would "lead a revolution" in British broadcasting.

The system brings together live broadcast television with on-demand and online catch-up TV in a more sophisticated way than ever before. It also introduces to the platform applications similar to those of the Apple iPhone. Cindy Rose, the executive director of digital entertainment at Virgin Media, said: "This is a landmark moment in the UK's digital revolution."

Britain's biggest cable company announced in November last year that it had teamed up with Tivo, the set-top box maker which revolutionised home television recording in the US, to plan the new Virgin Media product.

Dan Simmons, the senior television technology analyst for Screen Digest, said: "This is a significant move. It is the first time in the UK that a pay-TV provider has combined the 'open internet' with its premium package. It is very interesting for the market."

The box has a one terabyte hard drive, which allows 500 hours of recording, and three tuners so that viewers can record two channels and watch a third at the same time. It has an in-built broadband connection which uses its own dedicated bandwidth and avoids dragging on other internet users in the viewer's household.

Virgin is promoting the service off the strength of its broadband network, which is the fastest in Britain and covers half the country. It currently offers 50Mb broadband, and will launch its 100Mb service later this month.

Ms Rose highlighted Tivo's "intelligent recommendations engine" which recommends programmes based on those previously watched. Users can create wish lists in which the system will find any content related to particular shows, actors, directors or themes. It is the first serious salvo in the battle to bring online catch-up television to Britain's living rooms. A rival system called YouView – previously known as Canvas – will be launched in the spring, and Virgin Media will also faces serious competition from the launch of Google TV in the UK.

Ms Rose pointed out that YouView, a joint venture between partners including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and BT, would be aimed at households using Freeview, rather than pay TV. "It will only be as good as the quality of the broadband," she insisted. She added that Virgin's strategy was different to Google TV, "which wants to turn your TV into a PC", and added: "That has a limited technophile appeal."

The new boxes are first being made available at £199 to existing customers on Virgin's most expensive television package, but will be offered to new subscribers in the new year.

With the introduction of applications, Virgin hopes to do for the TV "what the iPhone and Android have done for the mobile phone". The first apps will include eBay, Twitter and BBC iPlayer, but Ms Rose expects that to reach "more than 100" in a year. The group will provide a developer's kit in the way that Apple and Google did for their application platforms.

The launch highlightsVirgin's move in a different direction to rival pay-TV provider BSkyB, Mr Simmons said. "Sky is focusing on 3D at the moment. Their boxes can deliver some of this 'open internet' content but they are not currently targeting that area."