It's been eight years since the satirical newspaper The Onion ran a piece heaping ironic praise upon a fictitious $5,000 multimedia computer, whose high-end specifications enabled it to download an eight-minute video excerpt in an hour and a quarter and display it at a miserable six frames per second. "It's incredible - I'm watching TV, but there's a keyboard in front of the screen," gushed the report. Geeks are still prone to rave over the latest video compression techniques that deliver pictures inferior to those on a bootleg VHS, but news from the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas suggests that it won't be too long before watchable film and television is pumped into our homes via the internet.
Downloading video files is nothing new - broadband users have been secretly grabbing films using torrent software for years, and even the BBC now offers some programmes for download before they're aired - but there are better ways to spend an evening than huddled around a wheezing Pentium II, squinting at The Blair Witch Project. Apple's new G5 iMac, however, is being touted as a "front row digital experience", and Microsoft's Media Centre PC has also been trying to worm its way into the living-room. It's rumoured that both platforms will end up using Intel's Viiv technology, which rhymes with the word "five" and is designed specifically to deliver that media-rich rich media we all yearn for. Companies that doubt we'll allow computers anywhere near our sofas are focusing their efforts on internet-savvy set-top boxes and televisions, which will, essentially, achieve the same end result.
A partner at one particular Silicon Valley firm decided this week that "appointment-based television is dead", sounding the death knell for our regular 8pm rendezvous with EastEnders. Naturally, the cable and satellite companies who deliver programmes to precise schedules disagree; they believe that we need help to organise our viewing properly. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Microsoft and BT recently announced that, by this autumn, British consumers will have access to set-top boxes that can deliver Freeview programmes alongside media-on-demand from BBC Worldwide, Paramount Films and Warner Music. Meanwhile, in the USA, the major TV companies have tentatively begun to offer certain classic shows, piecemeal fashion, via the new wave of entertainment providers: Yahoo!, Google, Apple and AOL. Having learnt from the mess that many record companies have made of their digital distribution, they're proceeding in an understandably cautious fashion.
The technology that enables television via the internet (or IPTV) is loaded with possibilities, including the horrifying prospect of consumers such as ourselves being able to broadcast our own programmes to an unsuspecting world. But these developments will ultimately depend on the speed and reliability of our broadband service. When the chief executive of Yahoo! demonstrated its new GoTV service at the CES show on Friday, he was forced to ask Tom Cruise to come on stage in order to distract the audience from the fact that the internet connection had dropped. A nice trick, but one that's a little more difficult to pull off in a suburban living-room.Reuse content