Sky by Broadband shows internet television promise

Satdude

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Sky by Broadband shows internet television promise

The Sky by Broadband service uses the same underlying peer-to-peer distribution technology as the BBC integrated Media Player, but offers a consistently coherent consumer proposition with far superior navigation. Sky has also beaten the BBC with the launch of their broadband service while the public service broadcaster is still conducting a limited trial.

The broadband offering from BSkyB is one of the slickest examples of an online video service seen so far. It demonstrates the true potential of broadband download distribution when backed by a powerful library of programming.

The Sky by Broadband service is available as a free added-value option to subscribers of the Sky premium movie or sports channels, simply by signing up online.

The Sky movies service provides access to a wide range of films, from relatively recent releases to selected classics. At launch 200 movies were available, but this will rise to over a thousand from the Sky Movies catalogue. This does not include pay-per-view movies available on Sky Box Office. Movies will be available for several months and can be viewed for up to a month after download, unlike the more limited seven day window provided by the BBC.

The Sky sports option offers highlights of action from football, rugby, cricket, golf, motorsports, darts, snooker and boxing, including premiership match highlights and interviews. Around 1,000 sports clips will be available at any one time. Some clips are available for download for up to five days, but many are available for almost a year, depending on the relevant rights.

An online entertainment package based around Sky One is also planned.

The minimum system requirements are a personal computer with Microsoft Windows XP and at least a 1Mb broadband connection. Nearly half of all Sky subscribers currently have a broadband connected personal computer, well above the national average.

The application itself is a considerable 40MB download which took some time to install and required a system restart. Once over this hurdle, the application was quite straightforward to use.

Launching the application prompts for a username and password to log in. Multiple users can be assigned to a single subscriber account through a separate online management system. However, only one instance of the application is apparently permitted per household.

The user is presented with a choice of thematic channels, currently Sky Movies and Sky Sports, depending on their subscription package.

Developed by ioko, based on the Kontiki distribution platform, the application is cleanly and crisply designed with a sensible layout and rational information architecture that is immediately intuitive.

The main window has a fixed width, designed to fit a 1024 pixel display, but can be resized vertically to accommodate longer pages if there is screen room available.

The user interface is displayed using Macromedia Flash, resulting in a slick, sleek, snappy presentation, with options that highlight as the mouse passes over them.

Unfortunately, it did not appear to be possible to use the interface using the keyboard alone, which is a major accessibility issue.

The main screen for Sky movies includes a prominent advertising promotion, with a sponsored list of must-see movies.

The left hand navigation provides a sensible series of main genres by which movies can be browsed.

A recommendations function enables preferences to be saved for favourite genres, stars and directors, resulting in a list of suggested titles. A hidden gems option provides editorial picks, including classic movies.

The search box enables convenient keyword search across fields such as title, stars, and director. An A-Z listing by title is also available.

Selecting a title leads to a well-presented screen providing further details, with the option to download or bookmark the movie.

The movie is then downloaded in the background. There are no unnecessary dialogue boxes to confirm the action. The progress of the download can be seen in the download queue under the movie library option.

Once downloaded—which typically takes about the same time as the duration of the programme—the movie can be selected from the list of titles that are ready to play.

This returns to the synopsis screen, enabling the user to confirm their choice simply by selecting the play button.

This launches a secondary window incorporating the Microsoft Windows Media Player. This can be maximised to full screen if required.

It is also possible to simply browse to the files in the file system and play them in the standard Microsoft Windows Media Player. This allows the playback window to be arbitrarily sized and kept on top of other applications.

Downloaded files are protected through Microsoft Windows Media digital rights management, which inhibits transfer and playback of material on other devices. Parental controls are available to protect rated content through a PIN code. Movies can generally be viewed for up to a month after download, after which they are automatically deleted. It is possible to download them again after that time, providing they are still available.

The quality of reproduction is surprisingly good. The movies viewed were encoded at 540x432 in widescreen aspect ratio at around 675-800Kbps, producing files of around half a gigabyte. Connected to a large widescreen television the results were quite satisfactory. Sports material encoded at the same rate exhibited visible artifacts.

A version for Windows Media Center is also being launched. This has the obvious benefit of enabling programming to be displayed directly on the television. An application for the Intel Viiv personal computer platform is also planned.

Although currently limited to the Windows platform, the user interface illustrates the possibilities for the next generation of interactive television services. It demonstrates the potential for Sky’s investment in broadband service provide Easynet and the inclusion of network interfaces in its next generation of set-top boxes.

In comparison to the somewhat awkward interface of the BBC integrated media player, the Sky version succeeds by not pursing the visual metaphor of a physical device. As a slick web application it provides a service that is simple to navigate and easy to use, providing an object lesson for the next generation of television user interfaces.

Regards Satdude. :-beer
 

Analoguesat

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A word of warning to folks with capped broadband limits - the standard SBB application does not close when you shut the programme down... You need to kill the service as well in the taskmanager
 
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