Gadget review of IBC04

IBC was good this year. There was real stuff to see. Ideas that were whispered two or three years ago are now products you can play with rather than vapourware. But you had to be cheeky to find some of them. Marching up to the stands with a request for a 90 second product demonstration certainly helped to cut through the sales bitch, sorry, pitch. Camera man Dave Allen and I spent a couple of days preparing our "gadget safari", looking for products, including software, of interest to the independent producer.

The Long Slow Fade
I am currently making a documentary on DV-CAM about the (slow) death of analogue radio. The question is whether digital radio will replace it in the form we were all expecting five years ago. In the UK, DAB is working. Elsewhere on the continent, it is a mixed bag. In Holland, for instance, the Dutch public broadcasters have stuck 6 of their channels on the air. But there is no added value for listening on DAB – the data is just the RDS feed and, with so few mountains, people are not writing to their favourite FM stations complaining about reception. Commercial broadcasters, still smarting from a crazy Dutch government auction of FM frequencies, refuse to play the DAB ball until they see a way of getting a return on investment.

With hindsight, the radio dial is the worst human interface ever invented. Millions of pounds of valuable content is hidden behind a number – or in the old days the name of the transmitter site! Do you know anyone who sorts their address book by their friends phone number? If you do, probably best to avoid them for intellectual conversation! It is unlikely that they floss very often too.

Pure Bug with DAB EPGWith all the competition from the "red button" and "iPod favourites" radio needs an electronic programme guide – an EPG. At IBC, Unique Interactive together with two receiver manufacturers – Morphy Richards and Pure Digital demoed the first attempts. Yes, the programme schedule is in there. But the intelligent radio that knows your preferences, anticipates and pre-records shows you might like is some way off. We’ll probably see the "personalised" software on Wi-Fi enabled MP3 players before the radios are out there.

In South Korea, the national broadcaster, KBS, is working with Samsung to make a multimedia enabled radio. On the WorldDab stand they showed how they’re putting video over the DAB network and calling it Digital Multimedia Broadcasting [Watch a QT video of DMB]. Korean Digital Multimedia BroadcastingThey know the broadcast network is ideally suited to mass distribution of media rich content. The economics of sending 3 minutes of video to 100,000 people make 3G a very expensive way of getting content broadcast, especially in a crisis. Nokia know that, but have chosen partners such as NTL and HP to work on a competing method of content distribution, DVB-H. Both are really in the physics experiment stage – no-one has developed stimulating content for these platforms yet – and it is not going to be ringtones that save the day [Watch QT video of NTL].

DAB, the other DRM, Wi-Fi
Two other technologies seem to be moving along. DAB has a complementary technology designed to make AM (long wave, medium wave and short wave) sound like FM. By turning the transmitter into a giant modem, and using 1/3rd of the power, the results are impressive. The RTL group plans to revive the "great 208" and see DRM (in this case, Digital Radio Mondial) as a cheap way of covering audiences spread over large distances. Three radios were on the DRM stand. I was particularly interested in a ?199 (~$245, ~£135) "cigarette box size" radio from Coding Technologies. It plugs into the USB port of a laptop and is also powered from the USB port. You need a bit wire as an antenna (keeping it away from the laptop processor), but the concept is a true plug and play [Watch a QT video of DRM].

As Wi-Fi takes off, a Wi-Fi enabled radio would be handy. There is a huge choice of radio programming streamed on the web. But you can’t carry it around the house. Philips StreamiumPhilips has a system called Streamium, which is more of a Wi-Fi enabled hi-fi/boombox. A clever piece of kit, but Philips haven’t a clue on how to promote it to the public. A Cambridge based research company called Reciva, on the other hand, had a much better concept to show at IBC – a kitchen radio format with a familiar tuning knob to change channels [Watch a QT video of Reciva].

It is no longer cool to be just a supplier to the "radio" journalist. Most of the people making recorders or editing systems are coupling the audio editing to some form of video editor. Handheld Digital audio recorders look pricey (?1000 +) when put alongside the new Sony HDR-FX1 HD-CAM cameraSony HD-CAM, the HDR-FX1, which will offer entry-level hi-definition video for the prosumer market for around €3,500 (~$4,314, ~£2,390). It also seems crazy that many of the best video editors can be downloaded for a couple of hundred bucks for personal use and yet some audio editors have made it impossible for the freelance community to buy cheap personal copies of the software. They forget what power of persuasion these people have in getting technology adopted within many broadcasting stations.

Our shortest visit was to Canford audio who have nothing on their stand – except one of the world’s biggest catalogues of audio equipment. In the back we spotted a pair of headphones, the DM H250 with a USB connector and a built in DA/AD converter – ideal for newsrooms with audio workstations that don’t want the expense of a separate analogue sound network. The headphones retail for around £110 (~$136, ~€75).

And finally on the audio side we picked up an iPod with a difference. It is actually a company within Harris called Neural Audio that was showing what their codec technology can do with a very limited number of bits. You got what sounded like perfect mono at 24 kb/s, and 5:1 surround sound at 96 kb/sec [Watch a QT video of Neural Audio].

Then onto stuff for the video/journalist in the field?and we found something that really is for someone like me. You are out on location with a complicated story?how do you remember your lines? Telescript has a small Teleprompter that works with a lap-top and is bright enough to be useful in the field. It will set you back £1,500 (~$2,700, €2,200). The batteries last for a day’s shooting. [Watch a QT video of the Telescript]

It doesn’t take long for videographers to realize that steadycam isn’t steady enough for the bigger screens we see today. But the tripod and dolly manufacturers guess correctly that we don’t want to spend our old age in a home for the bewildered with back pain. IBC had a lot of useful equipment for the documentary maker. The Italian company Manfrotto had a carbon-fibre tripod with gimbles, just the thing to keep the camera level on uneven terrain. They also had useful remote controls for handycams allowing for much smoother zooms using buttons on the tripod. LED backlights and even dim-able LED spotlights were on show – and much closer to daylight that I expected [Watch a QT video of the lights]. Perhaps one of the fastest demos was from Microdolly Hollywood who have a portable dolly-track which folds up in 5 seconds -flat! [Watch a QT video of Microdolly] I also bumped into an Israeli company called DVTEC. They have some useful devices to take the weight off your shoulders with a heavy camera, plus a compact car mount which, although light, won’t come off as you drive [Watch a QT video on DVTEC’s product].

My vote for originality goes to Puddlecam from the Norwich based EV Group. They’re in the sports TV business, trying to offer way in which to make unique action shots without ruining the camera. The indestructible Puddlecam is ideal for getting those action shots from the side of the road – in fact from anywhere where ordinary cameras fear to tread [Watch a QT video of Puddlecam].

I think software concepts also deserve a prize. If you want a complete set of test and measuring equipment while doing important DV recordings in the field, look no further than DVRack from the US company of Serious Magic. It is like taking a broadcast truck on location – except the software runs on a laptop. Download the demo to try before you think about purchasing [Watch a QT video of DVRack]. Personally, I was impressed, especially since you can start using this software to save DV to hard-drive and only use DV tapes as back-up. US$495 (~?403, ~£274) is the download price. If you need maps on location, then the Norwegian company of MAPcube offer a special deal to independent journalists who need to draw accurate maps, perhaps for a TV documentary or a website. They take publicly available data from NASA, but then adjust the presentation to make it usable for the broadcast industry [Watch a QT video of MAPcube]. Finally, the satellite company of SWE-DISH caught our eye with a satellite dish, FA150T, that can be folded and carried as a back-pack – at 38 kg (84 pounds) a bit heavy for the overhead locker, but ideal for expeditions to some of the remote areas of the world. Why are these devices still so heavy? Because they need a power amplifier to make contact with the satellites. This one from Sweden uses GPS to find the location of pre-programmed satellites. It is controlled from a laptop. A perfect case of shoot the video, then automatically point to dish to transmit [Watch a QT video of SWE-DISH].

That’s all we can squeeze into this space. This survey was done independently of the stand holders – no money changed hands nor was any equipment donated. Colleagues from other IBC sessions in the series also found other gadgets. Perhaps we can persuade them to share their discoveries for a follow-up column. If you want to see the stuff in action, watch the videos!

About Jonathan Marks
Jonathan Marks has worked in public broadcasting in the Netherlands for just over 24 years, but started his own consulting company in the middle of last year called Critical Distance. He produced a popular communications show on Radio Netherlands called "Media Network". He now plays devils advocate to a number of companies, questioning their strategies, but at the same time preparing alternative scenarios for what technology is making possible.

APTN and Arkemedia to Build Leading Online Video Sales Structure

By grabbing the nettle and deciding what is important, APTN and Arkemedia are building what we think will be a model for the future of content sales.

The Associated Press Television News (APTN) have started a bold project with high ambitions, to become the world’s largest digital commercial library, making thousands of hours of footage available for viewing. To help them archive this they have called on Arkemedia.

When completed, this system will reach the ideals that we at Digital Lifestyles believe will become the norm for organisation holding video content available to other interested parties.

When an APTN Library client requires some of the APTN footage for inclusion in piece they are creating, they will be able to review and select from all digitised material online. Nothing ground breaking up to here, but this is where is gets interesting, they will be able to complete their own edits using a browser-based editing tool, remotely. Upon completion, they will be able to request footage using online ordering and payment. The video material is stored at full broadcast quality, enabling the client to have it delivered any format the they select, be that encoded or physical tape, or at a later date full-quality IP delivery.

While we have been speaking about this kind of access to video material as the way forward it is encouraging to they are starting this project now, and plan to complete it by 3rd quarter next year, 2005.

As with all of these projects, the mechanism to access the material is just one segment of the project. The other significant challenge is the initial digitisation of the material, and on an ongoing basis, its refreshment. At launch they will have 1,000 hours of content that they plan to supplement with an extra 2,000 hours on a yearly basis taken from their content that they generate over that year.

In an unusual, but we think thoughtful move, they will not be digitising their extensive archive in the hope that someone will buy or use it, but will digitise on-demand, as it is ordered by their clients.



Amino shows tiny IPtv PVR STB

Amino AmiNET500Amino, the broadcast electronics company based in Cambridge, UK, have unveiled the AmiNET500, a tiny, low-cost, Internet Protocol Television (IPtv) set top box with built in PVR. The diminutive 184mm x 240 x 56 box can hold up to 40 hours of programming on its 80Gb drive. It runs on a Linux platform and uses a Java-based PVR application

Amino have taken a flexible approach to delivering content to the box. The AmiNET500 will monitor the speed of the broadband connection and will enable the uploading of content for later replay if, bandwidth is insufficient for live delivery.

Amino plan to support leading DRM and conditional access systems and, if protection is used, the programming will be stored encrypted on the hard drive. Delivery of content around the home, to different STB’s is also possible with this machine. Presumably the disparate STB’s will need to be able to decode the encrypted material.

The first vision of the box, destined for US release is available form October and the European version in early 2005.

Amino Communications

Pace launch PVR2GO – 1st Mobile PVR for payTV

Page PVR2GOPace, UK-based supplier for TV-focused technology, announced what they claim is the world’s first mobile personal video recorder of payTV.

The 40Gb device, which enables the downloading of protected TV content, has an interesting and innovative approach to the display. The device will feature two screens, a large high quality and resolution screen to display the content, with a secondary, smaller strip of screen underneath it that is used for navigating the content. The normal approach to this would be to use a large high quality screen, but in discussion with their Director of Technology, David Gillies explained that Pace would get significant financial saving using this approach.

The upper high-resolution screen will be a new range, supplied by Samsung, using one quarter of the power a currently available equivalent. Using ‘clever new battery’ technology and other power saving features, the battery life of the device will be at least 3 hours – more than long enough to watch a feature film.

Unsurprisingly it will also have the ability to play audio files and view photos. One unexpected feature is the ability to play games, the make up of which we assume will be dependant on which OS is installed.

On the OS question, we were told it would be soft, depending on who the operator customer is. If some purchasing operator has a Set Top Box (STB) with a defined look and feel or EPG, this can also be ported, extending the payTV operators brand to their viewers hand.

Although a fully working demonstrator was not available, they were showing a version, using the older screen, displaying video content. Given an order, Neil Gaydon, Worldwide Sales and Marketing Director told Digital Lifestyles that they could have it in the market “within six months”.

Pace Micro

GWR enable multi-cast audio network

In a bid to improve the efficiency of it’s disparate, countrywide 31 radio stations, UK radio broadcaster, GWR Group.

By using the multi-casing network each GWR site will be able to send live content broadcasts, eg celebrity interviews, to a few, several, or all of its other sites for inclusion in the local programming.

THUS plc, a UK provider of network services, will be providing a national IP-based Multi-Platform Label Switching (MPLS) platform.

Now GWR’s data, voice and broadcast traffic have been combined on to one network, adding new radio station sites will be simple and low cost.

GWR previously led the UK field by being the first radio operator to drive their output from entirely CD-based output.

GWR Group


TV-Anytime v2 to include iTV timeshifting

Today the TV-Anytime Forum, the collective of PVR industry-luminaries and deep-thinkers, announced it would soon complete its second, and final phase of the PVR standard.

The new phase, whose scope will be frozen in November 2004 will include

  • enabling the saving of interactive TV content to be saved to a PVR
  • a metadata framework enabling innovative advertising models for PVR’s
  • rights management of content, allowing transfer of programming between devices

We think that the first of these, allowing interactive TV (iTV) content to be saved to the correctly equipped PVR, is the most exciting. The playback of timeshifted iTV content has been the significant missing piece as far we’ve been concerned and if they achieve a standard that can work with any format of iTV content, they will have done very well.

The initial phase, which was been passed as an ETSI standard (TS 102 822 – “Broadcast and on-line services: Search, select, and rightful use of content on personal storage system”, is being implemented in Europe, the US and Japan, with PVR’s with enhanced functionality expected to launch during 2005.

Commenting on its widespread adoption, Simon Parnell, chair of TV-Anytime, “The adoption of TVA’s first specification by DVB, ARIB and ATSC shows how important this work will prove to be for the widespread adoption of PVR standards the public can reply on.”


Patrick Parodi, Mobile Entertainment Forum – The IBC Digital Lifestyles Interviews

This is the seventh in a series of eight articles with some of the people involved with the Digital Lifestyles conference day at IBC2004.

We talked to Patrick Parodi, Chair of the Mobile Entertainment Forum about what the MEF has set out to achieve and the future rolls our mobile phones might take on.

Patrick has a dozen years of experience in designing, planning, and launching wireless network services in more 20 markets world wide. In addition to his current role at Packet Video Networks, he has worked for Diveo, Skytel, Teleworx and TVAnswer in various business development and marketing positions.

Some of our readers may not have encountered you, or the Mobile Entertainment Forum.  Could you give us some background on the MEF and your involvement?

The Mobile Entertainment Forum is a global trade association representing all participants in the mobile entertainment value chain.

It started out 4 years ago with a few technology providers for mobile games and messaging coming together, along with Booz Allen Hamilton, to consider the cross industry issues facing mobile entertainment. I’ve personally been involved with the Forum for 2 years, first as Board MemberVice Chair and recently as its Chairman.

The organization has grown to over 65 members from all segments of entertainment and communications. What united our members under the MEF banner is their committed to growing mobile media as a major component of their revenue, whether they are a technology company, a broadcaster, a record label or a mobile games company. The diversity of our membership reflects the diversity of the industry and points to the need for a Forum where views and opinions can be shared on how the industry can grow faster. Our objective is to bridge the gap between entertainment and communication through advocacy, education and the launch of specific MEF initiatives.

The emphasis is on growing mobile revenues responsibly. Companies join MEF in order to play a leading role in setting the right commercial parameters in this evolving new industry. The coming together of the traditional entertainment and mobile industries certainly creates a need to develop a common understanding of how this business is emerging such that sensible business models are adopted allowing all players to participate in creating end user value. MEF members are addressing vital issues such as the adoption of mobile digital rights management and the creation of mobile communities.

Both of these initiatives are led by members who have come together to share information and learning in order for others to understand how they can participate in the creation of this new business. We also believe it is very important to communicate this learning and the opportunities created by mobile entertainment to those new to the industry, in particular those in the traditional entertainment and media industries.

An example of how MEF has helped move the mobile entertainment business forward is the recent launch of the MEF’s UK ringtones chart, which measures, publicizes and legitimizes the development of this growing market. The Mobile Entertainment Forum is also looking to ensure that the right regulation gets adopted –one that provides sensible guidelines for protecting consumers whilst ensuring healthy revenues for all players. Hence, our Regulatory Committee has recently submitted comments to the EU’s e-Money Directive and how it applies to mobile.

“All boats float with the incoming tide.” We are at the early stage of a new industry called mobile entertainment. It is vital that all parts of the mobile entertainment business have a common voice and recommend ways to resolve core issues and help the market grow. This is what I believe the Forum is providing to its members. A common voice.

Tell me about PacketVideo Network Solutions?

To keep with the boat and tide analogy, PacketVideo Network Solutions (pvNS) provides software for the “boats” who want to enrich the mobile media experience with video and music. The company is owned by Alcatel, and was formerly a division of PacketVideo. With over 20 commercial launches worldwide, pvNS is recognized as the leading provider of software solutions centered around the pvServer to mange and distribute mobile video and audio services.

Right from day one the sole focus of pvNS has been the creation of products and services for mobilemedia.

PacketVideo Network Solutions has chosen to employ AAC as their mobile music format.  Can you tell me what drew you to AAC?

Like any other technology company when it comes to formats we have to be agnostic. We can run bench tests and believe that one format is better than another, but if that format doesn’t make it onto devices then we shouldn’t be backing it. For mobile music it’s fair to say that AAC (and AAC+) is our preferred format simply because it provides the consumer with the best experience.

It also happens to be the format that has been adopted as part of the 3GPP standard and will find its way in more devices than any other format on the market. That being said, we’ll work with other formats too – whether proprietary or open.

Can you tell us a little about your IBC session this year?  What are you hoping to cover?

I’m very honored since this year I’m actually participating in two panels at IBC.

The first is on mobile devices and networks (The business of handhelds – who will survive – Saturday 11 September at 14.00 – 15.30 hrs. Location: Room L) and the second is on the new business models surrounding the broadcast business (Future Business Models – Sunday 12 September. at 16.00 – 17.45 hrs Location: Forum). Both have extremely provocative titles and are chaired by great people (Bernard Pauchon of TDF, and Kate Bulkley who writes about this space).

My views on both topics will be very mobile user centric. Although there are many different networks (GPRS, 3G, DMB, WiFi, DVB-H etc…) and many different creators and owners of digital content, there is only one end user.

This end user wants personalized, real time, and localized content. If you look at the value of the ring tone business (roughly 2.5 Billion dollars in 2003) you realize that it is almost 10% of the value of the music industry! Now the question: Are people paying to listen to the music or to personalize their phones?

Clearly content is going mobile and content on a mobile is only “king” if it provides that added value which is created through personalization. Some are calling it conversational content…others communitainment.

The mobile phone is the most personal content receiver we have in our possession and there are now over a billion of them worldwide. This is just the beginning.

Broadcasters are catching on to mobile phones as a revenue stream and way to extend brands – will customers pay for content they might get free through the internet or television?
  The simple answer is no. The way broadcasters are generating money on mobile is by using mobile networks as reply paths. The advent of reality TV and the ability for audience participation via SMS has blown away the level of interactivity expected by the iTV industry. Ask any mobile operator what the impact of Endemol has been on the mobile data business.

The question to ask now is, will the operator networks or even broadcast networks be able to deliver valuable content to mobile devices? The answer is yes, but not without a serious effort in understanding the new time and space dimensions created with the mobile. The value to the user is directly proportional to the contents ability to relate to the new dimensions of time and space being created.

Content will be valuable once it is wrapped into a service or application combining in real time, communication, personalization, and localization.

Think about how you feel when you grab your mouse to surf the web. Your attitude is “what can I get for free?”

When you connect with your mobile, you are conscious of the fact that each connection and each transaction results in money being spent. Therefore you are more disposed to pay for the right content. I am particularly curious to what happens with the overlay of location based services on mobile networks. This will result in “localized” content which also have a profound impact on end user value creation.

Do you see the mobile phone eventually replacing all of the devices we carry around with us from day to day – like our music players and wallets?
  It’s tempting to say yes, but my answer is just a little more subtle. I think the phone will morph into a device that can carry out all these functions and more, but I don’t think that means it’ll replace all these other devices. I think it will certainly be our main portable electronic device and I think for those times that we want to carry one device we’ll choose the phone.

However there will be times that we’ll want to carry a specialist device that’s designed to do just one task insanely well.

A 5 Megapixel digital camera for instance. For a long flight I may still want a bespoke machine for watching films on a 15 cm portable screen, and there’ll probably be a bespoke music player that offers more functionality than a phone for a long time to come.

So it’ll be horses for courses – but the phone will be the no.1 portable electronic device. It is unique, addressable, and affordable.

Patrick is a panellist in the ‘Future Business Models‘ session between 16:00 and 17:45 at the IBC conference on Sunday, 12th September in Amsterdam. Register for IBC here

Packet Video Network Solutions

Ashley Highfield, BBC – The IBC Digital Lifestyles Interviews

This is the sixth in a series of eight articles with some of the people involved with the Digital Lifestyles conference day at IBC2004.

We interviewed Ashley Highfield, Director of New Media & Technology and the BBC on the need to make content easily available to the public, and the platforms they might use to obtain it.

Ashley oversees BBCi services on the internet, interactive TV, and emerging platforms. He’s responsible for the BBC’s Technology portfolio, encompassing IT strategy, Research and Development, and technical innovation looking at the content forms of the future.

Can you give our readers some background to BBC’s interactive and new media operation and what you do here?

I’m responsible for all the BBC’s non linear output – so anything that is on the internet at, which is the world’s largest content website. It’s used by over 10 million people each month in Britain, and has a global user base of probably around 30 million. It covers news, information, education, entertainment … everything.

It is supported by our interactive TV service BBCi, which is available on satellite, cable and digital terrestrial Freeview. That too has an monthly audience of over 10 million in the UK alone. It offers a range of services, for example, the Olympics with multiple video screens that you can choose from – as well as information and education, things like GCSE Bitesize. I’m responsible for our mobile offering as well. I also look after the Technology Portfolio at the BBC and Research and Development.

Would you like to tell me a bit about your two IBC sessions this year and the sort of things that you are going to be covering?

The overall framework is that 50% of the UK have digital television, 50% of the UK has the internet and that’s been the easy bit in a way. I think history will come to look at that as actually having been the lesser task than the next 50%. The two sessions actually fall into quite neatly into “What are the technological solutions?” and “What are the content solutions?” So, what broadly are the solutions that could help drive us towards a digital Britain?

And what are the issues?

There has been a lot of work done by bodies like the Digital Inclusion Panel and by ourselves and by the Broadband Stakeholders Group and by Ofcom that are starting to come to some agreed conclusions about what are the barriers to adoption.

They are many and complex and the barriers are around “I don’t know it’s available” through to “I know it is available but I just don’t want it”; through to “I can’t afford it; I am frightened of it; it is not available in my area; I don’t even understand the language it is in; I can’t use it physically for some reason” and so on. There are a range of reasons.

I think that the interesting angle for these sessions, particularly the second one on content, is not just to ask “What are your whacky ideas for the future?”

If we know that the future is going to be held up by these different barriers, what are the contents initiatives to address these specific barriers? That for me would be “What tangible impact do you think it is going to have to drive take-up and get us to a digital Europe?”

That would be I think a much more gritty session rather than one that just goes off into the usual cyber bullshit.

Quite right.

I can give you an example.

Imagine I am someone living in a high rise block, I am thirty-eight but I am a single father bringing up two kids they’re thirteen and I have got digital Television because I have forced to by the Government.

I really never use anything other than the old five Terrestrial Channels. I can’t afford to get my kids a PC and I certainly can’t afford to subscribe to the internet or broadband, and they are getting teased at school for being behind the curve.

They are struggling in their lessons because all the other kids have got the digital curriculum available to them at home. Now, what if we could offer a content solution that got the digital curriculum into that home without any subscription charge? What if we could find a way of beaming that content service over digital terrestrial television into the home and getting it onto a cheap box for storage? If I could do it overnight so that my kids could actually have access to the digital curriculum in their bedroom through a £50.00 Freeview box with a hard drive, that would make a big change and impact on my life and would force me, as this single father, over some of the barriers.

It would be for my kids’ education. If it was simple enough to operate by just using the four coloured buttons, it wouldn’t break down and it was cheap – there was no subscription cost – then that would do it for me.

What are the content solutions, the content technology hybrid solutions that would breakdown all these barriers to leaving us with a non-digital underclass?

Do you see the BBC offering a Broadband content service, and perhaps even its own set top box?

It is not a specific plan – the set top box is not a specific plan, but it does strike me that we are not thinking about these problems laterally enough at the moment. The content people are just looking at the content solutions and the hardware people are just looking at the hardware solutions and what you end up with is hardware being put into the market like DTT boxes with PVRs in them.

Like HomeChoice and Sky+?

I think Sky+ is a platform driven solution where they want to drive subscription up to their platform. That’s very clever, but it is coming at it from their perspective. They haven’t actually thought too much about what kind of content could you start to download onto a Sky+ box. They are just going to start offering that service at the end of the year, downloading movies and letting you consume them when you want to consume them.

HomeChoice has a slightly different angle, and then you have the hardware manufacturers who are just making free-standing Freeview boxes with PVRs in them.

No-one is actually saying “Well, what is the content solution that is going to drive demand?” It is all a bit fragmented at the moment.

So yes, I do think that the BBC has got a role to play in starting to create content solutions that will start to shape the way that people look at the hardware.

The united broadband platform – the equivalent of a set top box like that – has lots of advantages for production houses and people who produce content. You write it once and it can run on several kinds of boxes. How serious is the BBC about getting involved in a project like that when you have people like N2MC trying to work on a single European standard for interactive content? Is there some duplication there or does what you are doing fit in with what the European Broadcasting Union is doing?

I know of a number of initiatives that have tried to set single standards – let’s say interactive TV MHP. I am sceptical because there is installed base in Britain – how many set top boxes do we have, 11 million? 7 million Sky boxes, 3.5 million cable, 3 million Freeview … in fact, well more than that now.

And at least 5 interactive TV platforms across Europe as well.

Right – it is not going to happen. It is better to actually focus either at a higher level of abstraction like putting a Java engine into every set top box or even a higher level just putting tools into the broadcaster to enable us to create content once and then using multi-platform authoring tools.

Again, it is a technological solution that often doesn’t wake up to the reality in the commercial market. Why would Sky ever use any other solution? Let’s assume that Sky is forever going to have Open TV as a legacy in 7 million homes. In which case let’s deal with that reality and therefore try and find solutions in the real world.

That’s what I am interested in – finding solutions in the real world for this last 50% of people who haven’t got Digital Television.

The worse thing is to try to dumb interactive content down to a common technology platform.

The lowest common denominator with the worst functionality.

It is not going to happen.

How much content will be on the Interactive Media Player when it launches?

The vision is quite clear – the vision would be all programmes up to a week after transmission. Then you are into practicalities, everything after that is practicality. Therefore, what can we put in or rather what can’t we put in? I would like to start with everything until somebody gives me an absolutely convincing reason why we couldn’t.

Now, clearly that is going to take a while, when we launch it as a real product, if we launch it – you know we have only just finished the trial – there is no guarantee that we will. If there is no demand for this thing, no matter how cute a technical idea it is, we won’t do it. But, if the demand is strong and we can find solutions to the rights issues and the distribution issues then we would want to set a route map towards all the content.

What rights issues and distribution issues do you see?

A plethora. Everything from encoding the stuff in the first place, to storing it here, to checking people have the right access to get it in the first place: i.e. they are within the UK, right windowing and so on, to how we actually physically distribute it, that it doesn’t make our service fall over, to quality control when they get it, to download and streaming technologies. You may know that we are looking at least three technologies to lighten the load of distribution.

I’ve heard peer to peer mentioned…

Peer to peer. We are doing that for IMP. We are doing multi-casting where we send it once to the service providers who then distribute it on, and store and forward and storage serving.

We are looking at a number of different technologies to lighten our distribution load. That’s the technology issues.

The rights issues are broadly around trying to find a framework similar to the one we achieved with the radio player which is a bulk rights clearance framework because it won’t work trying to clear things one by one by one.

What about Creative Commons? Lots of people are very excited about the Creative Archive and its use of Creative Commons. What’s the feeling inside the BBC about using Creative Comment as a licensing?

Too early to tell. I mean, it is an idea. It’s one that we therefore want to test but as to whether it will provide an effective enough rights framework, I don’t know.

So it is not set in stone yet?


What sort of DRM will you be employing with the Interactive Media Player and will Creative Commons material be DRM’d and will it be your own BBC codec, the source for it or will you be going to Microsoft?

Yes – all those are being evaluated at the moment! Those are the questions. The trial at the moment that separates the download from the DRM I think is very clever. It allows peer to peer, and the file is encrypted and can only be viewed when you come to view it by checking back with the BBC to confirm your rights at that time.
That isn’t going to necessarily work for Creative Archive where we give you the content to view and manipulate in perpetuity. There will be different DRM solutions for different content and that’s why at the moment we are running a separate initiative from Creative Archive – because they are actually testing different demands and different modes of usage. One is about catch up TV, and another is about actually keeping the content forever and doing things with it. They are going to need different rights approaches.

You are looking at using two difference rights systems for content that is used in two different ways.

Yes, currently.

When the public buy content they have copied protected CDs, they have Fairplay protected tracks from iTunes, they have WMA protected tracks from OD2 – and they can’t move content between devices. As awareness increases of the fact that people are locked into devices and DRM systems, where do you think that’s going to end? Do you think there will be a shake-out in the DRM market or will consumers say “That’s enough”?

There’s money in them there hills and competing formats are going to be around for a while. Whether the shake-out would happen such that you end up with the ubiquitous single framework a la VHS or whether you end up with a number of slightly different formats like DVD, or whether in this instance an organisation like the BBC could help to create an open framework remains to be seen.

Clearly, one of our objectives would be to ensure that our content was available, free at the point of consumption – and that is what we are here for as a public service broadcaster – and not intermediated by other gatekeepers. That is the primary strategic drive behind implementing the Creative Archive. It is to be able to get our content to our audiences with the minimum encumbrance.

As far as your audience goes, will the Creative Archive be limited to the UK or will other countries be able to access it by buying a licence?

It’s something that is up for debate. The licence fee extends just to the UK and therefore it is a completely legitimate framework for us to have pay models outside the UK.

Obviously BBC Worldwide exploits extra-UK rights for all of our content. They sell those rights packages to other broadcasters, not to individuals. What we have never done is to offer our content direct to the consumer a commercial B to C model. We have always done B to B to C. So could we start offering pay per play, pay per view for international users off the back of the Creative Archive. It’s something we can look at, but it can never be and will never be the major driver for the products. We can’t have a commercial tail wagging a public service dog.

We are seeing an increased demand for our narrowband streamed content, like our radio services. Also, the Proms is popular in Japan. That’s probably one of our Global roles. Increasingly as the content gets richer and more bandwidth is required, the cost of distribution increase – how do we recover these costs?

The perceived value increases, too, as the content becomes richer and so we get more guarded, a bit more jealous. There is certainly a huge demand around the world for content that is being funded by the Licence Fee.

We need to be careful. The Olympics is a good example where we do not allow Broadband access to the Olympics content from outside the UK.

We have got the rights to all the broadband content on the web but only within the UK. So if you try from abroad you just can’t get it.

The BBC’s efforts for the Olympics this year are phenomenal – you’re providing much more footage than has ever been done before by anyone and you’re covering it in very different ways. There are on-line statistics completely updated, people can watch the five interactive feeds at one time on broadband and on interactive. Do you see this as just the tip of the iceberg for new types of content that are enabled by new technologies? What sort of types of content are you looking forward to in the future?

That is where it starts to get interesting, the question is “How will content change to meet this need?”

My clichéd example is still the best one I can think of: snooker. Colour television, a change in technology made the sport.

Clearly people played snooker before colour telly, but it wasn’t a broadcast sport and suddenly about 1969 it was. What does this broadband and interactive TV technology enable that wasn’t before? The Olympics is a really good example. The viewing figures for minority sports, we imagine, will go up considerably.

So that makes the Olympics a better proposition, but it doesn’t change the nature of the Olympics. What sports could actually be fundamentally changed or created by new technology? An example might be a long form sport that currently doesn’t work terribly well in a broadcast schedule, like the Round the World Yacht Race. You could use GPS graphics – there are websites that enable you to track the yachts, but could you then use some clever interactivity and so on to make it a much more compelling sport, and therefore take it out of a niche activity and propel it into the mainstream.

Yes, almost certainly are there sports out there waiting to be transformed into mass spectator sports, like fishing. That’s where we haven’t got to yet, because we are only four years into interactive TV and probably only about four/five years into entertainment content over the web. We have not yet moved forward into totally new forms of content.

It certainly is an exciting area.

It is and you just see some emerging things like “Big Brother”. “Big Brother” would have just about worked as a television programme just on its own – “Test the Nation” you would have struggled to make Test the Nation work if you couldn’t have actually tested the Nation. If they couldn’t have joined in via interactive TV and the web you would have a bit of a lemon of a format, but, you know, where do you go from here?

Another good BBC example, of course, is “Come and Have a Go if You Think You’re Smart Enough”.

Right – totally doesn’t work.

It would never exist unless there is participation through the use of technology. Actually those kind of content, I think, we should set up at the beginning. Probably those are the ones that we want to show that we are on a journey here from enabling existing content to be shown in new and interesting ways to increase Region consumption through to totally new forms of entertainment that this technology allows.

Just thinking about “Come and Have a Go” and that sort of integration of different content platforms. Where do you see mobile content services moving? Will the BBC be adopting things like DVB-H?

We have been in a world where mobile content is not able to be distinctive enough to have made it appropriate for a large scale investment by the BBC. We are meant to be by being public spirited, we are meant to provide content that is distinctive and that is where its public value outweighs its market impact.

I think it has been very difficult with a tiny screen and text to let the values of the BBC through. I think it changes once you start to get 3G more broadband video, more meaningful video onto mobile phones.

However, I still don’t think that would then be enough if all we were doing was duplicating the audience that were already using us on-line. Then is that the best use of the Licence Fee? The question I’m asking is: What audiences are we not getting on interactive TV or the web that we could reach through the mobile?

Let’s take teens, a clear audience that are watching less television – certainly less BBC1 prime time Television. What kind of services could we offer to that audience through mobiles, and how can we make it high quality and distinctive? Now that is really interesting, and we have done some stuff like that – like GSCS Bitesize. I think it is too early to call at the moment the mobile market because it has been ostensibly a text based information service.

As it becomes a richer service – an example would be GO – IP based services i.e. how rich could it be for the BBC to offer you a content service to your mobile phone depending on where you are. Now have already trialled some of that where you can go on a walk around London and using information from our History website – will know where you are and tell you through the mobile phone historical facts about where you are actually standing at the time.

How could we use our network of Where I Live regional sites to maybe give you the news and information in radiating circles around your mobile phone? That for me starts to become really exciting. Once we start to move into that world I think that value of what we can do on mobile will increase exponentially.

Would you charge for a mobile service like that? If you are trying to get into every area to offer services it means that you are slicing the Licence Fee thinner and thinner.

Well, not if there is no marginal cost of distribution.

If we cut up all our content anyway, my vision would be a world where all of our content is meta-tagged with its location. On Interactive TV you could give me the news in a five mile radius round Humberside but you could also do that on your mobile phone. It’s not just news content – all our content – you could show me say on the Nature website, give me all the sightings of Greater Crested Plovers within a five mile radius of where I am, i.e. that all of our content – give me any entertainment you’ve got, any comedy clips from the Fastshow that are set in Wales. You can just see a whole BBC centred around location – now if we did that if we meta-tagged all out content then there would be no marginal cost of distribution to the mobile phone.

What resolution will Creative Archive material be in?

We’re testing that.

The content ranges from about 400 KB a second – news stuff – a bit more than that like 500 on Top Gear and so on right the way through to trials at 4 megabits for high definition. I have a Media Centre at home so I was able to use IMP to download the HD stuff and then watch it through my plasma telly – awesome!

That then, puts you in an interesting space where we could get HD out to people’s television sets without the need to rely on Sky and Cable to upgrade their Networks. At the moment can’t – it doesn’t matter if I shoot something in HD you can’t get it on your Television set, whereas through the Creative Archive we could. It is interesting but what we don’t know is, is there any demand?

Steven Carter, Ofcom said it wasn’t broadband until it was 10 megabits per second. When do you think that will be happening in the UK?

I don’t that is a terribly meaningful definition anyway. I think we are far too hung up on technology. The right question should be – when can we deliver enriching engaging content through these devices that doesn’t, because of its quality, diminish the experience? That is the question. It doesn’t matter if you come up with amazing encryption technology. Get me Eastenders down 500K and I get just as much out of it because the graphics aren’t blocky, then that is fine.

We are not there yet – jerky, slow video – we are not there yet but I don’t think it is 10 megabits. It is probably useful to try to understand it because it is certainly more Bandwidth than we have got with them at the moment. But understanding what – here is a good example – in Hull we found that local news people were willing to take it “lower quality” and yet to the audience it wasn’t lower quality at all – we thought lower quality meant lower picture quality, but actually for them it was higher quality because it was local.

It was immediate and although it was user generated, that for them was their perception of quality. The fact that the picture was shaky didn’t matter. So we are putting our perceptions of what quality is onto this equation.

I suppose it has a higher value to them because it is local and, in fact, when you see footage coming back from Baghdad you don’t mind that it’s jerky because you expect it to be.

Yes – because the important thing is that you want it now.

What impact will Charter renewal have on new media services on the BBC because obviously you are becoming very intermingled with traditional programme production?

It is fundamental – if you go through Building Public Value, there are 42 major initiatives in there – of which 25 are new media, so we have go to move from a position of still being, to some extent on the boundaries of the core BBC to being absolutely its heart. That’s going to be a big shift in everything.

Ashley is a chairing the ‘New Platforms, New Content‘ session between 09:30 and 11:00 at the IBC conference on Sunday, 12th September in Amsterdam. Register for IBC here


David Wood, European Broadcasting Union – The IBC Digital Lifestyles Interviews

This is the fifth in a series of eight articles with some of the people involved with the Digital Lifestyles conference day at IBC2004.

We interviewed David Wood, Head of New Technology in the Technical Department of the European Broadcasting Union. David also works for the Secretary General as Head of New Media.

David has a background in electronics, television and the Arts – making him an ideal candidate for the European Broadcasting Union, and has worked for the BBC and Independent Broadcasting Authority.

We talked to him about the hurdles he will face in setting up a single technical platform for digital broadcasting in the EU, and the benefits of encouraging hardware, software and media providers to work together.

Some of the people visiting the site might not know about what you are up to, and certainly might not know about N2MC, the New Media Council, so can you give me some background as to what you are doing at the European Broadcasting Union and indeed what N2MC is all about?

They are kind of two separate areas. Essentially, the European Community helps to fund a series of research and development projects in a number of areas – and one of the areas is network, audio, visual systems and home platforms and it means digital broadcasting, interactive television, internet delivery and in home networks.

They are currently running a whole series of research and development projects which last two or three years in specific areas – some looking at digital television, some at the synergy of broadcasting and mobiles, and others at digital rights management issues.

Recently in the consultation discussions that we have had, amongst the projects where people share their results, there has been a feeling that Europe needs an entity – which is loosely called a technology platform – at which people from different organisations would examine where there areas or shortcomings in interoperability, production and delivery. The group has been putting together the case for setting up a technology platform which would try to investigate where there are shortcomings in interoperability and make suggestions as to what could be done.

If we look around today there are plenty of instances – for example, interactive television, as you know there is a whole range of different ways of doing that – Open TV, MHP and so on.

I believe there are currently five different interactive televisions standards in the wild?

Just in the UK alone there are three different ones being used.

So, if you take the Europe of 25 countries, it’s not that bad – but, yes there are certainly five major languages or application programming interfaces. Some people believe that we are on the threshold of what’s called high definition television and people in Europe are going off in several different routes as to the right way to deliver that.

You could also look at digital rights management and see different solutions and one solution is coming out of the mobile environment, and another solution is coming out of the digital television environment. The idea wouldn’t be to invent anything or to solve any problems that somebody else is solving, but to have people who could look at all of the networked audio/visual environment and ask the question “Have we done as much as we can on interoperability and what can we do to make everything connect together?”

It is not just a matter of the convenience for the user but of helping European industry to maintain its place in the world.

There is a general feeling that we should really do all we can to make sure that the European new media industry is as well equipped as it can be.

We worked for some time looking at what were the different issues, and we produced some proposals. The next step is to discuss with a new Commissioner, Olli Rehn, who is responsible for this area.

The idea is to meet with him in September to see how he sees this, and whether he would support such an initiative. Of course, this is a industry initiative and it is not a matter of something the Commission itself is doing.

Later in the year, if everybody agrees that it is workable, we would set up this technology platform. It happens that there are a couple of other areas in industry where the same thing is happening – one is called nano technology: areas where it seems very important for Europe to be competitive and have the best available tools, and we will do what we can to coordinate our research and development.

I suppose there is the desire to not want to reinvent the wheel every time…


…but then again you are up against commercial entities who want their own technology to succeed. How are you dealing with that?

The group who have been discussing this believe that, in the long term, the interests of everybody will be best served by open systems. This is the environment that has produced, for example, the massive success of GSM and so on.

What we have to do is to find a formula in critical areas where on the one hand we encourage entrepreneurialship, innovation and forwardness, but on the other hand we recognise that with things like a public offer there is a value in having common systems and standards. Somehow the trick in the technology platform will be to find the path between those two things. What we want to achieve is both. Encourage the entrepreneurialship and so on, but allow the stability of common systems where it is possible.

Nobody has an easy or quick answer or formula. I guess these things will have to be looked at case by case but at least we have a common vision of that’s what we are trying to do: encourage competitiveness and so on, but at the same for that to grow you need to have a stable industry where people know what is going and some degrees of, if not common standards, common interfaces. The trick is to make things interoperable.

The Commission has said this week that no decision is going to be made until the end of 2005 on whether a common interactive television standard is to be looked at and that everyone should share information and play nice until then. But then you have got organisations in the marketplace there who are direct competitors to each other, for example, Sky are quite happy using their own platform. Are they really going to want to open it up to their competitors when this could possibly be a chance for them to own the interactive TV platform?

The particular case you are discussing was the issue of whether or not the Commission should encourage the national members of the Community to insist on using the MHP interactive television language.

This particular issue is a very difficult one. For example, take BSkyB who have already a legacy of 5 or 6 million set top boxes which use Open TV.

If you say to them after a given period of time that they must change to an open system, then that is a very difficult thing. Who is going to pay for all that replacement?

Perhaps sometimes you have to swallow hard and say maybe we started this process and bit late. It is the same in France: large numbers of propriety boxes already in public hands.

The Commission was faced with that dilemma: they can’t fund replacements for existing receivers and the conclusion they came to, as you rightly said, was to try to use other means – forums to encourage people towards a common system rather than making it mandatory.

That was their decision and some people think that was the right one, others think that it might have been better to bear the pain and go for a common system. It certainly illustrates that there is no simple route in this and the technology platform would have to look at it case by case. Sometimes if you get in early these things are easier to do than if you arrive late.

Can you just give me a bit of background to your session at IBC this year and the sort of things that you are hoping to cover?

I will be taking the delegates through some of the issues are significant in terms of interoperability of networked audio/visual. I will give them an update on what the result was of the discussion with the commissioner and how they might, if they wanted to, be part of any initiative of this kind – the technology platform.

Who have you got behind you in N2MC?

It is the work that we have done so far came out of the consultation group of the projects that are being partially funded by the Commission. At the beginning at least most of the actors came from that world and that is the large European companies that are involved in research and development in this area like Phillips, Thomson and Nokia.

We have also taken advice from a number of individuals who have helped us. One is a guy called Leonardo Chairiglioni who is the convenor of the MPEG Standardisation Programme. Richard Nichol former boss of Martelsham, the British Telecom labs, Jean Valliesen who is another third guru with Phillips.

So we’ve had the major manufacturers and also we have brought into the discussion quite a number of other actors like Bertelsman, the German broadcaster, BSkyB, Deutsch Telecom, Intel – quite a range of actors from the media environment. We’ve got no reason to exclude anybody.

We sampled what we thought was a cross section of people who might be interested in the initiative.

Now you mentioned Bertelsman there, what sort of feedback are you getting from content producers?

Content producers feel that they do have their own issues in terms of interoperability and everybody is conscious that, in the end, this is one of the really critical areas in terms of content distribution and programme production.

At this stage what we are doing is asking the question “In what areas could such a venture provide added value for Europe?”, but there is this definite feeling that the content industry has to be something which we help in Europe, that it is a vital part. It must be a vital part of the European media industry, so we should be particularly looking to help, if that is the right word, the content industry to make life easier, to make things interoperable, to encourage competition and at the same time encourage entrepreneurialship.

Some would say that you have a mammoth task ahead of you –

Everyone would say that!

Even just looking at one area like DRM. What sort of milestones are you setting? How are you going to know that you are on the way to sorting this out?

We are at the stage of discussion and people would say how they thought it was best to handle that particular one. But my part in the discussion has been to suggest that, probably the best way to go forward is that we need to see what the requirements are of the different ways of delivering content in terms of digital rights management.

We need a list of what broadcasters need, mobile phones need, broadband needs, and then we will see whether there are some things which are the same, some things which are different and if there are some things which are the same then we could move to a stage where we can actually use the same technical systems.

It is a matter of discussion but my fourpennethworth has been to suggest that the right way is to delineate what are the requirements of the different media and see what the similarities and differences are. That for me the way we should move forward on interoperability on DRM, but it is all for discussion.

You’ll be looking at the requirements between manufacturers for interoperability, but will you be looking at consumer requirements?

Of course, yes – the two have to go hand in hand.

Rightly or wrongly the companies, like the one that pays me – the European Broadcasting Union, and public service broadcasters somehow see themselves, apart from anything else, as the guardians of the consumers.

We are paid for by a license or by advertisements. Our shareholder is the public. When we come to the question of requirements, we have to first and foremost ask whether the customer is a user. We must the right to time shift or whatever it is they want to do.

European Intellectual Property Directives state that it’s illegal to try to circumvent a copy protection scheme. Yet there is also a fair use clause in another European directive, stating that consumers can make copies of media. These seem to be contradictory.

Yes, I guess it is a fairly complex issue and one of the things that people are wrestling with now is the use of things like the broadcast flag which the FCC in the United States is adopting.

In the US the plan, as we understand it, is that if you have a digital broadcast you have to put this signal in, on the one hand, and then you have to put some apparatus in the receiver which acts on it and prevents the signal being carried over onto an internet connection.

This is a matter of discussion but the idea of obliging receiver-makers in Europe to put anything in the boxes is pretty difficult to imagine happening. The climate of opinion in Europe – getting 25 different states to make it mandatory to have some particular prevention technology in a digital receiver – just sounds absolutely impossible.

There are lots of issues to discuss and there are no easy answers, but all of these kind of things, as you say, are matters that a cross platform body like the technology platform could discuss and see where there are common ways forward.

So out of the areas that you are going to be looking at with, what is your favourite? What are you most looking forward to getting your teeth into?

In the digital phone world you have the 2.5 G and GPRS methods of delivering digital media, and to some extent 3G or UMTS, and in addition to that there are two other routes to delivering content to handhelds by a broadcasting channels already in the wings. One is a system called DVB-H, and the other one is an enhanced profile of DAB.

How these four options will live together is a difficult one. In an ideal world, I guess, we would have some cooperative network technically where you could imagine that if there is something on your hand held that lots of people want, it comes via a broadcast path. If it is something that only a couple of people want, then it comes via the digital phone network.

Could we achieve these kinds of cooperative networks? The same notion of cooperative networks may also apply between broadband delivery and digital broadcasting to the home. Could we imagine connecting both broadband and TV and TV broadcasting, and if we can do it in a kind of seamless way for the user? Creating that world of cooperative network – well, that would be pretty exciting.

What support do you think you will get from the new Commission?

We don’t really know what his priorities are. The civil servants there change every so many years because the Commission is generally afraid that if someone stays in the job then people get friendly with them and perhaps exert too much influence or whatever it is. The staff are forever rotating – so there will be new people not just only Rehn.

The issues of interoperability in the API and MHP and all of things that you mentioned, have come out of a group led by a gentleman whose name is Adam Watson-Brown.

Adam is moving on out of that area which is loosely called Strategy and into a group which is looking at content regulations – quotas and so on. We may have quite a new order at the Commission in terms of things like interoperability and the API in the future, but it remains to be seen.

The public are now getting used to buying digital media which is quite often protected in different ways: doesn’t work on some devices, works on others, can’t be transferred, has different rights. Are you looking to the public for support in what you are doing?

The consumer associations would be very much invited to be part of the technology platform to make sure that we listened and heard what they had to say. It is a two-sided thing, we want to make industry prosperous and give the European public the convenience and so on that they deserve. We are very much aware that there are two sides of this coin.

We can’t say with certainty that we will create a technology platform and it will be useful and successful, but in the discussions there seems to be a body of opinion that something like this may be useful and we will never know unless we try.

We want to encourage people to think about the issues of interoperability, where there maybe something that could be done, what could be done, who could do it and hopefully encourage people to contribute to this process.

If we have a single aim it is to make it inclusive of all of the actors so that everybody feels that they are buying into their solution.

David is a panellist in the ‘Understanding the Range of Platforms‘ session between 14:00 and 15:30 at the IBC conference on Sunday, 12th September in Amsterdam. Register for IBC here


European Broadcasting Union

Tony Greenberg, Ramp^Rate – The IBC Digital Lifestyles Interview

This is the fourth in a series of eight articles with some of the people involved with the Digital Lifestyles conference day at IBC2004.

We interviewed Tony Greenberg, CEO of Ramp^Rate, an IT sourcing advisor designed to help companies select the most appropriate vendors for services such as email, hosting and security.

Ramp^Rate uses its Service Provider Intelligence Index to rate vendors and marry them up with customers using an unbiased, purely data-driven methodology.

Tony started Ramp^Rate as a response to the problem of huge sums of money wasted every year because of poor sourcing decisions.

Amongst many highlights in his career, Tony ran sales and marketing at Raindance, was senior vice president at Digital Entertainment Network and was a senior executive at Exodus.

Some of our readers may not be familiar with Ramp^Rate – and it’s a rather different company from those we usually cover – could you give us some background on what you do?

Simply put, RampRate helps companies make great decisions, fast. Part of what we do is help some of the biggest entertainment and technology companies in the world understand where all these next-generation media platforms are going, and how it affects their businesses. We do a lot of research and consulting with a lot of companies you’ve heard about, companies who are looking at delivering digital media of various sorts over wireless, mobile, the web and so on.

And the other part of what we do is help those companies and many others save a lot of money when it comes to running all the information technology that helps them function. Companies spend billions of dollars on IT services, and they’ll only spend more in this increasingly technological world. But we believe, and prove it every day, that companies spend way too much money on their IT services. So we help them save a lot of money.

We do that by using what we call the SPY Index, which stands for Service Provider Intelligence Index. We help companies buy sophisticated and complex IT services – everything from outsourcing everything related to a computer in your business all the way down to simpler services such as digital rights management, e-commerce gateways, bandwidth, applications outsource management, anything that has to do with a monthly recurring service.

The SPY Index is a bit of a magic black box, but it’s basically a huge database filled with information about hundreds of IT services deals and other information we’ve collected over the past several years. We take a client’s needs, punch those into the Spy Index, and find out which of about 200 vendors we are associated with would be a good match for the services they need, at a price that is almost always far below what they’re paying now.

A vendor can be a big company such as IBM or EDS or a lesser-known smaller company such as a payment-processing house. RampRate learns everything about the vendor, puts all the key information into the SPY Index, then uses that to radically speed up the process of picking the right vendor for a given client. Saving time saves companies a lot of money, and our SPY Index gives them hard numbers that let them know what real market prices are for the services they want. They can get a great decision, much quicker than ever before, and know that it’s the best deal available on the market.

We can do this because we have an unusual structure. We use an agency model, which means the vendor and the client share the cost of our services. That’s a different approach than many consultants take. In a more typical relationship, a company like Microsoft, Disney or Sony would give a consultant a retainer. The consultant in turn would source the products and services that they need, then would be paid a uniform transaction fee from each of those vendors that was chosen. The consultant then would repay the retainer to the client. So in essence it may cost the client essentially nothing, but they likely are paying far more for the services they actually get.

Our first allegiance is always to the client, but we know our approach allows everyone to win within a shared “ecosystem” of clients, vendors and us, as their intermediary. The vendors save money because we bring really good clients to them who are ready to do deals. The clients save money because we’re able to bring them the best deal out there, from a vendor who meets their specific needs for service quality, reliability, financial stability and other factors.

We manage hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions for companies large and small, and we have strong client work in the areas of publishing and media with clients like Primedia and Microsoft and a lot of online properties such as iFilm, ESPN Motion and the National Hockey League.

Can you tell us how you actually got to Ramp^Rate?

As a kid, I built a chain of retail stores in the fashion eyewear business and had several peripheral businesses in the manufacturing and distribution arena.

In manufacturing eyewear we designed, we customised eyewear and we created a unique proposition different from many stores worldwide. We also had a direct order/direct mail company – and we even did infomercials.

I sold those companies in 1995, moved to Colorado for a couple of years and regrouped. The Internet started to happen and I moved out to Silicon Valley, kind of paving a new frontier – and I was brought in to run many of marketing functions for Exodus Communications.

At Exodus, we had a few dozen people, and we turned that into what became the largest Internet hosting company for major brands in the world. From the streaming perspective, we developed the first streaming core for all the big broadcasters from to Real Networks to Akamai to Yahoo. We went public with a US$37 billion valuation, and were sold to Cable and Wireless and then on to Savvis.After that, I have invested in a few dozen companies and then moved to Raindance (RNDC), which is now public in the web-based conference-calling space, where I ran sales, marketing and business development.

Then I went to run business development at Digital Entertainment Network, where we raised US$88 million from Microsoft, Michael Dell, Enron, Intel and NBC. The network paved a new frontier in digital-media distribution, not only creating short-form programming but aligning distribution deals with most of the major portals for video on demand.

After working with a venture firm for a bit of time, we re-launched RampRate based on correcting billions of dollars of bad mistakes on IT-service decisions. We have had a concentrated emphasis in the digital-media space, especially from streaming, and now moving into IT sourcing. Most of our deals are between US$5 million and US$100 million – but we do everything down to very simple core functions like streaming media, collocation, digital-rights management and even some telecom.

We have another unit of the company that is run by Michael Hoch. He was formally research director of Aberdeen, a leading research firm in digital media, and he now runs our operations and research. The research group uses the SPY Index to identify trends, especially in digital media.

We have analysed more than 300 companies against all their competitors. We use the data resulting from transactions to help companies go to market quicker, better and cheaper with their products and services. We work with everyone from large software companies to large media companies on a research and go-to-market basis. It is a very substantive part of our business – about 25 percent of our overall revenues.

Can you tell me a little about your IBC session and what you are going to be discussing there?

There are some enormous chasms in digital-media distribution in terms of business models that “stop.” Business models stop when they lack what I call the “point of inflection,” where they can successful, based on economies of scale or possibilities in distribution.

For instance, what are the limitations of Cable VOD in regional markets? How many concurrent users can be had? Well, that’s a bandwidth issue, it’s a numbers issue.

When companies go to market with things of this nature they must make decisions from an economic standpoint: how much they are willing to invest in the distribution, their loss, and the internal rate of return on the project as they move forward into this new space.

As long as they are clear what the investment is, and what their customer-acquisition cost is, that’s great. You just have to know where you are going.Data-driven decisions, which is what we provide our clients, are really where it’s at, where we focus our energies. What’s efficient and what’s not in the marketplace for IP distribution? What is the faceoff between Cable TV and broadcast affiliates and networks? What are the efficient scales? How does wireless relate to those and how does Microsoft relate to all points in between?

I guess some of the areas that I find interesting are, who is your natural partner and who is your natural enemy in the digital-media food chain? Answering those questions will define the business models that will be successful. You can prognosticate what their cost will be in distribution all the way out three, four, even five years. It is pretty easy because you have a strong trend of costs and transactions gleaned from our database. We have everything from a data standpoint, so the trends are based on solid, real-world numbers that we know are correct.

That is quite a bit of ground you are covering there!

There are three distinct areas in the media business: creation, distribution and consumption. Almost any time any company has tried to delve into two as opposed to one they have been wholly and fully and holistically unsuccessful.

If media companies feel that, in bypassing a distribution channel such as Blockbuster, they can increase their relationship with their customer and take more profits off the table, then they are wholly and fully wrong.

I will help them try, but at the end of the day, the food chain has been established for content creation, content distribution and content consumption, and you can’t be in all those businesses.

Tell me what you are doing with ESPN and with NHL?

We have managed the sourcing for ESPN Motion. We have managed the procurement for the video-on-demand service for an online content e-commerce project for the NHL. We have testimonials on our website from those counterparts that would indicate the types of things that we did for those firms.

Are services like Video on demand and content on demand reaching mass market? What do you personally define as mass market for these services?

Anywhere an economic model exists to create profitability in a regional marketplace.

Are we getting there?

That would align with models that would throw dollars into the three channels discussed – content creation, distribution and consumption.

If I were to make a blanket statement, it is very clear that sponsored and/or branded content will pave the way as opposed to a subscription model. I believe that things like USDTV or MovieBeam, which are using the broadcast signal, offer a unique perspective and a unique revenue model for broadcasters and broadcasting affiliates alike.

In addition, the augmentation of satellite radio and distribution advertising will create another channel. A lot of these things will be bundled and pushed towards what I call Enron conversion. Who has the most to gain and who has the most to lose? You can either charge the consumer 10 bucks or you bundle it for telco to have a long-term sustainable contract with the vendor.

When you are talking about a place where you have cable or DSL, telephone, VoIP, VOD and cell phone – the telco, whether it be wireless or hardwired, really are looking to make about US$200 per household per month minimum. That’s US$2400 dollars a year or US$4800 dollars for two years which is the average churn rate for a lot of those services.

Well if there is US$48 to gain for a large telco and there is US$10 a month to be gained by a content provider, I guarantee that telco is going to be willing to pay for those services to bundle it in, to support conversion for long-term subscriber revenue into their base.

Playing the long game?

You have to. You can either play the short nickel or the long dime and ecommercing content these days is so very expensive because of on-line fraud and other issues. Unless you have a very meaty, highly valuable product or service, you could be eating up 15 percent to 45 percent of your actual revenue just in transaction costs.

Protecting the content is expensive too.

Well, that is important. We have to be more aggressive in the way we bundle, the way we package, as media companies. If I were speaking from their perspective regarding peer-to-peer services and increased distribution, which is the most valuable aspect, I’d say what they are getting for free is important, so they should really pay for the peer services.

Do you think that free to air digital TV services are going to be big in the USA?

It is hard to prognosticate where USDTV is going – all I know is that they are on loan to the spectrum, and the broadcast affiliates will have to adopt the model, with everybody and their brother starting to stick their feet in the water of trying to own something that lives in the living room.

The TiVo or PVR as we know it goes away, the cable box may integrate directly into the media centre which may look like a remote control, it may look like a light switch, it may look like a knob on your car, it may look like a cell phone.

All those things will be tried, but ultimately between hard-drive space and functionality, it doesn’t take a whole heck of a lot to put a new box next to your stereo or to integrate it into a unified system with your five-speaker digital surround sound system.

I can plug a cheap S-video cable from my laptop into my TV and VCR, and by doing that I enable every form of digital media that I can get on my system directly through the television at a very high resolution.

We are already there, it is a manufacturing thing and will be driven by the size of market.

Producing content and delivering it to many platforms is obviously expensive. What sort of efficiencies can content producers adopt to spend less money on re-purposing content?

Stop trying to deliver it themselves and rely on service providers enabling them to grow and create efficiencies in their business. Stop trying to create and distribute your content. Rely on people who do that for a living and use a sourcing advisor like RampRate.

So no need to bark if you’ve got a dog?

That’s right – everybody wants to do everything and they think they are controlling some secret sauce, but there’s no secret sauce. What they need to control is the quality of their content, because it is still a hit-based business. You get enough people to watch it, they will pay for it with their eyes through advertising or with their pocket book, through subscriptions and the like.

What’s next? What are you looking at next for your business that you can tell us about?

For us, we are very excited about the fluid marketplace that the SPY Index helps create, but really we are more excited about the fact that every business model has been tried and tested, and that data and operations have been put together to enable distribution and file-format and -protocol conversion.

Basically, there are services and web services that enable the conversion of these file types into deliverable media to all devices. It’s getting really simple to stick a content router or a box that reformats things and distributes to everything from your TV to your PC to your wireless headset to just about anything. WiFi and WiMax enable it, and it becomes the new operating system for distribution. We are very excited that there is a fluid connection within that digital-media chain.

We are going to pave new products and services, and whole new service providers, that will enable a fluid distribution through one single point. That’s exciting to us.

What keeps you awake at night? What is frightening you?

What’s frightening to me? I guess from this standpoint how powerful the telcos become three years from now.

Do you think that there will be another break up of the telcos in the US again?

I don’t know what the breakup would mean. I just think that they had been able to hold their product models extraordinarily steady until the big bandwidth started to appear. This music-download stuff is also scary as heck to me. It is very expensive to deliver; you have to have a product that will support the profit or the losses that it takes. It really feels that movies and video, long term, go the way of branding and sponsoring similar to television; the economic models are really tersely negotiated and are grave at best for a profitable enterprise over the coming two or three years.

So you think that the downloaded music business model is going to decay in another three years?

It’s the red herring of the business!

It is about transport cost and storage cost. The reality is, if you look at Moore’s Law and you do a calculation, 85 percent of all the music that people want to listen to will sit on one disc by the end of next year. Storage is so much cheaper than transport. You’ll take that drive and put it in your car. Why is Netflix working? Because they didn’t try to send it over the Internet.

Tony is a panellist in the ‘Future Business Models – Who Pays for What?‘ session between 16:00 and 17:30 at the IBC conference on Sunday, 12th September in Amsterdam. Register for IBC here