Informitv HbbTV article 9th October 2009

HbbTV new acronym but still the same old mousetrap

9 October 2009

While the proposed HbbTV standard is seen by some as a pan-European solution for hybrid broadcast broadband television, others that have experienced the difficulties in developing and promoting common interactive television standards such as MHP remain more sceptical.

“As a digital television technology executive it is really disturbing to wake up each day and find that somebody has supposedly found a better way to build a technical solution for interactive digital television services,” Anthony Smith-Chaigneau, the managing director of Alticast Germany, told informitv.

“HbbTV is presented by some as a new pan-European initiative but it seems to be just another way to revitalise previous attempts to bring the web to the television.”

He points out that for well over a decade the industry has experimented with combining broadcast and the internet, so far with limited success.

Back in 1995 WebTV, based on HTML and backed by Microsoft, attempted to marry the web and television.

Around 2000 one of the goals of the ATVEF initiative was to create a specification for interactive television based on HTML.

So far, these and other initiatives have not met with much success. HbbTV is just another acronym aiming to combine the web and television, suggests the veteran of many standards battles, and yet is “still the same of mousetrap”.

The longstanding proponent of MHP, and co-author of Interactive TV Standards, the standard text on the subject, is dismissive of the bold claims being made for HbbTV.

He says the industry appears to be wallpapering over all the other initiatives that have gone before, such as MHP, which has already been deployed in a number of countries across Europe and the rest of the world.

HbbTV, he observes, is now being promoted by the broadcast technology institute IRT, previously a supporter of MHP, a solution he says failed miserably in the German market, which he attributes to a failure to find an interactive business model in digital terrestrial television.

As teletext services are being switched off in the United Kingdom, the Germans are advocating HbbTV to deliver such services, which he suggests are arguably less relevant in a broadband connected world.

He is highly critical of the focus on changing technology, rather than addressing the underlying business model of broadcasting. As he puts it: “re-hashing technology not fit for purpose and changing nothing because the business model remains the same”.

“HbbTV has many, many flaws and is not available for mass production,” he asserts, adding that it faces the same intellectual property issues as previous interactive solutions. He suggests that HbbTV is simply an attempt to recreate DVB-MHP using HTML instead of Java.

HbbTV is a browser solution for television, but that raises the question of which browser implementation and the difficulties inherent in supporting different browsers in an open environment, a problem that is familiar from the world of the web.

MHP is already capable of supporting HTML through a browser plugin and is already deployed in hybrid broadband broadcast networks, he notes, offering seamless services such as catch-up programming, video on demand, interactive advertising, personalisation, voting, games and social networking, as well as programme-related services such as digital text and electronic programme guides.

Needless to say, as a provider of compliant products, already powering anything from DVB-MHP and Tru2way set-top boxes to Blu-ray disc devices, Anthony Smith-Chaigneau of Alticast believes that MHP, based on Java and GEM standards, is a viable solution for hybrid broadcast broadband.

Although it has been adopted in some countries, such as Italy, MHP has not been widely deployed across Europe. The question will be whether HbbTV is likely to be any more successful in establishing a harmonised standard for interactive television services. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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