Flash on your TV today

Following a recent operation on my back to correct a slipped disc I’ve had to spend a considerable amount of time laying down; this in turn lead me to really use some of the TV catch-up and on demand services offered by the UK broadcasters on my laptop as I didn’t have convenient access to the TV.

Impressed at quite how much content I could watch over the internet, I then started to seriously explore options for getting internet-delivered content through our main 42″ Toshiba LCD screen; the thought of being able to explore a back-catalogue of programmes that are automatically stored by the broadcaster, rather than relying upon me to setup recordings using Sky+ was particularly appealing.

So, off I went (with a slightly improved back)… and I have to say the whole process was actually far easier than I’d imagined; I bought a new Mac Mini with bluetooth keyboard and mouse, connected it to the TV using DVI->HDMI and audio cables, added it to the wireless network and then installed Flash Player and Adobe AIR. Done, nothing else required.

Adding Flash Player enabled me to watch streamed content from all the BBC channels via iPlayer, from Channel 4’s On Demand service 4OD and from Demand Five, Five’s catch-up service – all of which combined gave me a choice from 1000s of hours worth of TV.

BBC iPlayer - version for large TV screen

With the addition of Adobe AIR I was able to use the BBC’s service to download and store programmes for an extended period of time (30 days rather than the 7 for the streaming service) – I’m hoping that in the medium term the BBC might enhance this offering further to automatically download series that I like so that they’re ready for instant playback, but I guess I’ll have to wait for that :)

If that wasn’t enough I was also able to watch paid-for TV programmes and select from both new-release and classic films from BlinkBox, a UK-based service that streams content using the Flash Platform.

BlinkBox offers paid-for streaming of TV and Films using Flash

In terms of free programming, the BBC service undoubtedly offered the best quality with regular streams at 1500kbps and HD streams at 3500kbps – both looked really good even scaled up to 1920 x 1080 and were certainly indistinguishable from the quality offered by over-the-air or satellite TV. In fact, if you’ve ever questioned Flash Player performance on a Mac, take a look at full-screen streamed HD content playing back on a low-spec Mac Mini – it is really impressive. Only Channel 4’s service left me disappointed in terms of quality, the video really isn’t encoded at high enough a bit-rate to watch on a large TV without obvious distortion, but maybe there are commercial reasons for this decision.

I’ve been running this setup for about a week now and am still really impressed by how the experiment has gone, so impressed in fact that I’ve come to several conclusions:

  • other than for watching breaking news I have no need for broadcast TV
  • internet-connected TVs are the future and the future is not that far off
  • multi-screen services really do need discrete user interfaces – one size fits all does not work

Each of these conclusions raised a number of interesting thoughts… firstly, I’m amazed that the recent Digital Britain report didn’t propose a radical redefinition of the BBC license fee. Right now, a household requires a TV license only to watch broadcast TV in the UK, not to own a television – using this setup and switching to an alternative source of ‘live’ news I’d technically no longer require a TV license. My aim is not to evade paying for a TV license, but rather to suggest that the ‘value’ is in the content that I’m consuming, not the distribution method. It feels to me like a re-think will be required as to how the UK population are asked to pay for the (generally) great output that the BBC produces.

The main factors I see that will significantly affect consumer take up of “next generation TV services” are provision of high-speed broadband (I am fortunate to get 7.2Mbps out of the quoted 8Mbps on my phone line) and cost of the hardware required to access and playback content. For the tech-savvy, purchasing a Mac Mini (or if you must, a low-cost Windows Media Centre-equipped PC) and connecting it up is all well and good, but really this needs to be “plug and play” or built in to the TV itself – hopefully the work that Adobe is doing with set-top box and TV manufacturers as part of the Open Screen Project will help to make watching Flash-delivered video content just that simple and projects such as the proposed BBC “Canvas” platform will make low-cost, wide-scale distribution of network-equipped set top boxes possible.

Finally, whilst I’m happy to percivere with using a wireless keyboard and mouse to navigate web pages to access content, we are going to need specific UX expertise for TV-based interfaces, just as we will for mobile – again, I think Adobe can help by providing frameworks (Flex) and tooling that provides consistency in the process for creating, developing and testing user interfaces, but a one-size-fits-all approach design isn’t going to cut it. My wife still isn’t completely sold on my new “toy” because it is harder to use than the Sky+ PVR…

There are no doubt exciting times ahead for designers and developers who’ll see the range of content, services and devices continue to expand, but equally there are going to challenges for those who provide infrastructure to support this vision and those who need to charge for content.

So, if you’ve got some spare cash and want to get Flash on your TV today then this is a great setup; wait a bit longer and hopefully it will come as standard right out of the box :)