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Ricky Rand: FutureTV and the digital entertainment revolution
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The Independent Online

Nobody could accuse Ricky Rand of selling himself short. As head of a company called FutureTV, he is convinced he has come up with a system that will make the digital entertainment revolution a reality for the average household.

Nobody could accuse Ricky Rand of selling himself short. As head of a company called FutureTV, he is convinced he has come up with a system that will make the digital entertainment revolution a reality for the average household.

Nor is he jumping on a bandwagon. At a time when the internet seems to be everything, he is establishing a company around the old-fashioned concept of television. Only it is not TV as most people recognise it. Instead it is a way of bringing together all the hi-tech developments consumers have been promised for years, like video on demand, online music and electronic shopping.

Indeed, the idea for the company came to him in the mid-1990s when he tried, and failed, to import a system for distributing video on demand in Hong Kong, where he was then living. Realising he had been taken in by hype, he set about producing the technology himself.

In this, he had an advantage. Possessing a degree in electronics and microprocessor engineering, he spent the early part of his career working in technical development and marketing for Acorn Computers. He then set up NBM Systems Design, which developed technology to improve share- trading terminals. When he sold up to Reuters, he was left with the money and time to build his latest enterprise.

These factors help to explain why FutureTV and not a huge computer or media firm is about to supply a one-stop entertainment shop, he says.

However, he attributes even greater importance to his unswerving focus. Early on in its development, the internet started to attract a great deal of attention and members of the team he had assembled suggested the company should shift its approach. But Mr Rand insisted they kept going as they were on the grounds that the net as it was would turn out to have been a passing phase.

This does not mean he sees no value in it. In fact, the net is an integral part of the package he is offering to telecommunications and cable companies. It was just that he could not see it supplanting the TV so long as it was confined to computers.

Even with this sense of purpose, it hasn't been easy. The development of FutureTV has been financed by the proceeds of the sale of Mr Rand's old company. He worked without pay for most of this time. A $10m (£6.25m) investment last August by venture firm Eden Capital has let the company bring the product to market, and Mr Rand anticipates another financing before the float, expected later in the year.

Perhaps mindful of his time selling terminals to traders, Mr Rand is obsessive about technology being easy to use. To make his point, he aims the remote control at the giant TV in his West End office and moves between playing music and surfing the web. "There's no difference between a CD and the web. It's just stuff."

The system is all powered from a set-top box the size of a portable CD player and a larger box that can be hidden in a nearby cupboard. It operates on a pay-as-you-watch basis, with accounts being charged by credit or the Mondex cash card. It also uses smart-card technology to personalise the service. "The challenge is there's too much - too many websites, too much music, too many videos etc. You have to start filtering it down," he says, explaining the technology that observes what the cardholder watches, listens to and buys and comes up with future recommendations as well as personalised advertising.

For this to work, the suppliers of films and CDs will have to come up with the data that the computer software can study when making its recommendations. But Mr Rand is confident the idea will catch on and that entertainment firms will have to play for fear of not having their releases listed.

With TV programmes, films, radio, the telephone, recorded music, the net and email all just a remote-control click away, it seems so simple there must be a catch. But Mr Rand insists not. We'll soon see if he is right. Upcoming deals with a telecoms company and a cable firm should indicate whether this really is the future of TV.

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