The old set-top box's basic problem

With the announcement of CWC's new strategy, which supports Internet access through both television and PC, the argument below is probably no longer relevant. However, it does explain the basic problem with the old strategy, which supported Internet access solely through the TV set, and is worth keeping on display just in case there are further U-turns ...

What is generally called 'interactive TV' or 'enhanced TV', which CWC will eventually supply through a standard TV set using a digital set-top box, has been a failure. I've been doing some research, and dozens of attempts have been made since about 1982 to beef up the standard TV set with facilities such as home shopping, games and other applications. These have been modest successes at best, and some have been extremely expensive and embarrassing failures.

Why those failures? I think I can answer this question as, professionally, I am a user interface designer.

The trumpet call of user interface design is 'put the user in control'; any attempt to force the user to do things convenient to the package but not to them is seen as unacceptable. Do you remember old-style text editors with 'modes' - edit mode, insert mode, copy mode and whatever? The user was allowed only to do certain things in certain modes - and it was often not clear what things were allowed in what modes - so they were not in control. Modal user interfaces largely died out about ten years ago; it took about twenty years to realise that they were a bad idea, and lessons slowly learned won't be forgotten.

With full Internet access, the user is in control; they can use any application already on their computer, or download any other, and do what they please with their open connection. With the standard TV - or even a TV with Teletext or Prestel - the user is not in control, apart from in the limited way of changing channels, and there is no pretence otherwise. The buzzwords for these opposing situations are 'pull' and 'push' - the user pulls a Web page into their browser as and when they want, whereas the BBC pushes the Nine O'Clock News out to the viewer at the same time every weekday.

Enhanced TV is an attempt to graft pull-like features onto a push technology; the user is given mimics of pull features such as broadcast Web pages and email, together with a large number of channels. They are not in control: everything else is push, leaving an an unsatisfactory hybrid. Recall Microsoft Internet Explorer's channels, which fall into the same trap; how many people use them?

The set-top box seems a classic 'solution in search of a problem'. I would even suggest that (enhanced) TV is an application of - or a subset of - the Internet, not the other way round; the set-top box tries to make the tail wag the dog.

And, with Novatech among others now offering a respectable PC, including monitor, for just over £400 inclusive of VAT, and TV tuner cards being supported by Microsoft, what price the future of a set-top box which is far more restricted in what it can do than a PC? After all, if users didn't want the flexibility of pull technologies, the Internet would have failed to catch their imagination ...
Text by Alastair Scott

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