Another E-Visionary emerges

Interactive television is taking hold in the Middle East. As E-Vision launches its interactive platform, Geoff Hunt explains his vision

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By  Daniel Anderson-Ford Published  November 14, 2001

Interactive television|~||~||~|Studying the recent releases of interactive platforms in the Middle East is to appreciate the mode of technology adoption in this region. September 2001, last month’s Showtime launch date, goes down as the date interactive television came to the Middle East, well over a year [being kind] after operations rolled out in Europe and the US.

And this is the way it happens in the Middle East technology sector; the region is a follower not a ground-breaker. This may be seen, by some, as an insult to the region’s sophistication in broadcast.

However, is this necessarily the case? What the Middle East does lack in many regions is a legacy infrastructure of media networks; it is a relatively new convert to new media technology. Nevertheless, it is rapidly becoming clear that in sitting back and assessing international A/V developments, the Middle East is actually giving itself a distinct advantage. Indeed, without the shackles of older grade networks and technology, the region can join up with things at a more advanced stage.

As one top executive told Digital Studio recently, why waste money developing experimental technology when you can take it on board when it works properly.

Interactive television and its roll-out in the Middle East is a case in point. Broadcasters in the West, particularly the UK, Denmark and Holland, have been experimenting with fledgling iTV technology, platforms and ideas at great cost. Only now are so-called ‘killer applications’ being found; successful initiatives like Big Brother and BSkyB’s Premier League coverage being cases in point.

Such organisations have struggled without clear definition of an interactive standard; now MHP is attaining dominance. And platform technology is only now reaching optimum performance, with a new leader in OpenTV’s EN2 emerging in the leader. So what better time for the Middle East to adopt iTV platforms?

And so it is that E-Vision announced the launch of its interactive platform and service in October.

The initial offering from E-Vision, like Showtime’s, is simple and basic. Though a return path is made available, interaction is limited and for the launch, E-Vision has chosen to limit the service to an interactive games channel, something quickly being dubbed a ‘sticky application’ internationally. That E-Vision has launched such a specific service perhaps shows that a more tailored definition of what makes a successful iTV service is emerging.

“iTV has been with us for a couple of years, and really the first step for us is games. Certainly in all the research I have read, games seem to be the thing that everyone really loves,” reveals Geoff Hunt, interactive services manager, E-Vision.

There are five games on offer, purchased from French developer VisiWare, consisting of ten-pin bowling, air hockey, pinball, a more traditional chess and Moko which is, apparently, a platform game featuring a monkey eating bananas.

“Traditional family values is [E-Vision’s] proposition, and that was what we were looking for in the games. In December, we hope to launch our EPG, displaying information about our 90 channel bouquet [an amount E-Vision plans to double by this time next year],” explained Hunt.

Displaying a familiar caution, other features are scheduled for further down the line: “This is our first offering, included for free in the basic package. In December, we will launch our EPG
As with Showtime, what is on offer now is not the issue of importance. It is the deployment of the technology infrastructure that is going to enable the exciting stuff. What E-Vision is offering now is well beneath the performance capacity of its network and platform.

The service is based upon OpenTV’s EN2 platform, which even now will offer interaction with PVRs [personal video recorders], Internet access and pay-TV functionality. Importantly it also provides the capacity for over-the-air upgrades.

Abdul Rahman al Mullah is E-Vision’s technical manager, and he oversaw the development and installation of the iTV architecture:
“The major challenge was making all the parts fit together,” he explains. “Our STB’s are made by both Thomson and SAGEM, and our headend facility includes solutions from both Tandberg Television and Siemens, the latter of which we worked closely with on installation.”
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Clearly this relationship with Siemens was pivotal during installation, as al Mullah points out: “We chose Viaccess for our conditional access system on the recommendation of Siemens.”
Viaccess’ inclusion in the package marks a successful breakthrough for the French-based CA company in a market traditionally associated with Irdeto Access. It was, says al Mullah, “the most reliable and secure system we saw at that time”.

Of rising star OpenTV, he was equally full of praise, commenting: “With its over-the-air capabilities, EN2 made the most sense, making the upgrade of our SAGEM and Thomson boxes [a process now fully completed] simple. Everyone seems to be using EN2, and most STB manufacturers either have working devices or prototypes based on this platform.”

Is OpenTV becoming a market leader for iTV platforms then? Hunt suggests so:

“They have been in the business a long time and they are bringing systems to the market that are very stable. Customer’s do not want to be bothered with waiting for the system to load caches as television is an ‘always-on’ application. This is what players like OpenTV and Viaccess are bringing to the market.”

To its credit, E-Vision clearly has its sights set on a fully interactive service sometime soon:

“Next year, we will be looking at a back end solution that will allow us to run interactive competitions and maybe network gaming,” Geoff Hunt iterates.

The only surprise of the E-Vision launch is that the division of Internet provider Etisalat is not even considering the provision of Internet access to its television customers. Hunt explains the theory behind this as he comments:

“An Internet service is not even on our road map, although we have another division here at Etisalat, Emirates Internet and Multimedia. We do not believe it is a sticky application for television. Most people when watching television would rather go to their computer and send an e-mail or visit the web.

“One thing we may look at, though,” he continues, “is chat rooms relating to programmes. Perhaps this might include SMS, but this is only a possibility.”
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In some respects, it is difficult to appreciate the benefit to a broadcast platform in providing interactive services, unless, which is possible, it is simply a case of ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’.

ITV is costly to set up, tenuous in terms of direct revenue and in reality limited in terms of its appeal to the user. However, Geoff Hunt offers an interesting theory, relaying the experiences of UK satellite platform BSkyB – a company from which E-Vision has clearly learned much:

“The greatest revenue for BSkyB came in reduced churn, so the value is actually in retaining customers. They estimated 5 per cent. In the long term that would pay for your interactive content and set up.

“What you want to do is provide customers with a service that encourages loyalty and keeps customers on board,” he continued.

“The important thing as we take in more interactive services is giving something back to the customer.”

A much more likely motive, though, is likely to be the establishment of a technology infrastructure with future revenue potential in areas like pay-TV, video-on-demand [VoD] and selective walled-gardens. The potential of such services, when various issues are ironed out, is surely the key reason for such an expensive operation. Hunt alludes to the future potential of the platform in terms of direct revenue:

“Pay-per-view is certainly one option, and E-Vision will be introducing this service early next year. We have also looked at producing a mosaic, but it’s quite an expensive operation. We thought that this would be best saved for the launch of our pay-per-view service.

“Video on demand is one obvious source of revenue. Later on down the line, when film studios work out their positions, we may look at this scenario.”

However, this is something that Hunt recognises could be problematic: “The technology is not there yet. There are many manufacturers with great servers and great interface solutions, but there is no product.”

Hunt predicts that, “we will see a hybrid of video-on-demand, where the customer will pre-book a film. You pick a film, make the booking and then it is downloaded to your PVR. I also see there being a price structure based on bandwidth. Perhaps downloads will be charged at peak rate, mid-peak and off-peak.”

However, if iTV is to become a direct revenue generator – as opposed its rather unquantifiable value currently – the key development is a commerce system that allows the viewer to part with money through the television set.

This is something that Hunt and E-Vision clearly recognise: “Television is essentially an entertainment medium, so iTV must and does support this aspect first. However, I also think there is scope for making the viewer’s life easier, like paying bills via the television. However, establishing a T-commerce system is highly expensive.”

The emphasis of E-government is to allow bill-paying and other public services using multimedia devices, and given the cost of establishing a T-commerce system, this might be the best encouragement for broadcasters to embark on the process.

Dubai E-government has developed a range of applications, including WAP, Internet and PDA [Personal Digital Assistant], which among other things allows the public to pay utility bills and municipal charges.

IT specialist for the Dubai Police, Ahmed bin Subaih, admitted that, “Television has not yet been looked at as a platform, but if an infrastructure exists that will support E-government’s initiatives then we will obviously consider it”.

Hunt didn’t rule the possibility out either, saying: “Although we haven’t spoken to E-government yet, it might be of interest in the future.”

Aside from the technological challenge of creating an iTV network, and finding applications that attract the customer, interactive television has two further hurdles to leap. The first is the lack of content due to the fact that programme makers are still struggling with the genre. However, Hunt remains upbeat about the situation:

“Creatives are starting to get their heads around it. For the first time at IBC there was an interactive programme award, for example. There are still problems. Look, when television moved from black and white to colour, there weren’t too many cameramen that understood it. It will just take a bit of time, but we are starting to see some good examples of work already.”

It would also appear that the task of creating interactive programming is hindered by the lack of a common format. As Hunt points out, “It is not simply a question of making a programme and shipping to the broadcaster. It has to be platform-specific, and this is making the trade in iTV content a little slow.”

The recent work by the UK’s Channel 4 is a good example. Its iTV content has been produced in-house for BSkyB’s iTV platform, meaning that such programming is restricted to the major broadcasters with large production budgets. So it would seem that smaller platforms are waiting for a ratified iTV standard, and will have noted with interest the progress of the MHP [Multimedia Home Platform], backed by the likes of Liberate and Mediahighway at IBC 2001.

The final problem is that of advertising. The recent launch of the PVR device from TiVo and the increased control that iTV is giving to viewers has sent the advertising sector into a spin. How will those product messages be displayed and conveyed to the audience in an interactive domain?

Though creative professionals and analysts alike sneer at the role of the advertiser, often seen as invasive and compromising to creativity, it is this revenue that funds the majority of television production. Hunt offer them a glimmer of hope, saying:

“There is something in it for advertising, and it is the ability to directly target offers and promotions to specific segments and groups. Moreover, while there is confusion, I think some advertisers, like Saatchi and Saatchi, are beginning to understand it.”

Hunt also believes that in-programme advertising is another option for advertisers, taking us “back to the 1950’s with the introduction of soap-operas that were directly sponsored by soap makers”.

Much about the iTV genre is future gazing and theory, and the cautious E-Vision launch shows this.

However, what the broadcaster and Hunt demonstrate is that the company clearly has a vision of the future, and more importantly is now well placed to work towards it. That the Middle East adopts technology when proven is clearly empowering the region’s broadcasters, enabling companies to adopt the latest systems, and is not necessarily indicative of a backward approach to technology.
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