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YouView expands to build cloud PVRs and give personal recommendations

YouView is hiring TV techies to build a smarter service with cloud-based recording and personal recommendations that can handle peak-time viewing with ease.

The free-to-view TV platform is expanding its tech team from 80 to 130 engineers as it aims for the two million UK homes barrier, with a goal of 10 million.

Recombu spoke to Piers Lomax, YouView’s head of engineering, about the roadmap for taking a major slice of Britain’s highly competitive TV market.

“We’ve got over a million customers and that’s increasing rapidly so we’re eyeing the 2 million mark in the near future and YouView has ambitions to be in 10 million homes in the UK,” Lomax said.

“We’ve got big expansion plans, there is an awful lot of new features that we want to build, we’ve got lots of new technology that we’re investing in, including HTML 5 and Unicast content delivery for live channels.”

The stage is set after a new shareholder agreement settled differences between the public service broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – and the ISPs – BT and TalkTalk.

While TalkTalk YouView customers can expect an update that will bring some of the long-awaited functions already available on the retail products, the first new cross-platform upgrade will be Connected Red Button for the BBC.

The next generation of the BBC Red Button brings live streaming online video into the BBC’s broadcast TV channels, but it relies on the arrival of HTML 5 in the YouView toolkit.

The first devices will receive the necessary upgrade within the next couple of months, after which it will be rolled out across the entire base.

Lomax adds: “YouView has always been designed from day one to support a number of different content formats and different authoring technologies, so the Flash player we’ve got – Air for TV – will remain in the device and it will power lots of the YouView user interface services that we currently offer, and the HTML5 environment allows new content and new features to be added to the YouView interface.

“HTML5 was always on the roadmap. Over time we’re likely to see a trend towards HTML5 and away from Flash for TV, but right now we’re making the best use of all of those environments as our content providers. There will be a slow migration towards HTML5 rather than a Big Bang.”

Some YouView users will no doubt feel short-changed to be at the back of the upgrade queue, but as the roster of devices expands across retail, BT and TalkTalk, Lomax is keen to emphasise reliability over rushing out new features.

“We’d love it if all devices could have the same features appearing at the same time but each of the companies that we work with has their own development cycles and we’re working very closely with them to make sure that we can all release features within a fairly short window.

“There’s a lot of technology that all has to work together and the YouView UI brings it all into one place, so there’s more testing to be done than on some other services and YouView takes quality very seriously. We’ve got a high customer satisfaction score so we want to make sure that customers keep getting what they expect, without any problems.”

YouView expands to build cloud PVRs and give personal recommendations
YouView has a lot more devices to look after than when it launched in 2012

YouView in the cloud

The cloud is a 21st Century technology buzzword that divides techies: some love its flexibility, while for others its an unreliable and insecure time-bomb.

It’s clear that YouView is already in the first camp, with Lomax tagging the cloud as an essential tool for keeping up with the growing base of users demanding seamless on-demand streaming video experiences.

Yet as Sky’s recent problems with Now TV and Sky Go have shown, there’s a huge appetite for online TV services that has to be matched by a robust back end.

“YouView is running all the advanced services it provides like the TV guide and all of our on demand content, as cloud services. 

“They scale as we get more customers, so YouView can scale up to cope with those Friday night, Saturday night peaks in demand and make sure that we’re always serving content to customers as quickly as possible. When people press the guide button they expect what they want to watch to be on immediately, regardless of if it’s 5pm on a Friday night or 2am on a Tuesday morning.

“We’ve got BT and TalkTalk relying on our ability to scale and their customer base is growing as well as the retail base, so we need to make sure that we are aiming for huge scale.”

It’s not just on demand that will be in the cloud: there are ambitious plans to give simple ‘zapper’ boxes like TalkTalk’s Essentials TV the same recording capability as the flagship Humax and Plus TV PVRs.

These ‘cloud PVRs’ will record when you’re not there, or even when your box is switched off, and allow you to stream from online storage as though it was in the box.

The details are still being finalised, Lomax explains, but one goal is to ensure that the cloud PVR won’t be a luxury tied to a fibre broadband upgrade.

“It’s about keeping that theme of simplicity: everything that you want to do in one place and the fact that YouView’s added that storage via internet in the cloud is really just something that shouldn’t be visible. It gives you more storage and gives you more features, and helps you to record more programmes as you would do locally. 

“As the technology moves on and allows higher quality streams to be delivered over lower bandwidth networks, you’ll see more and more customers able to get these services, and not necessarily those on the very fastest connections. 

“We are aiming to make the technology work on any suitable broadband connection – we’re not just targeting one particular part of the market.”

YouView expands to build cloud PVRs and give personal recommendations
Piers Lomax is YouView’s head of engineering

Get what You want to View

It’s hard to know which of the UK’s TV providers now has the ‘smartest’ box: is it Virgin’s TiVo, the latest incarnation of Sky+HD, or Freesat Freetime?

Virgin heavily pushed TiVo’s ability to learn your viewing habits, but has let it tick over in favour of being the fastest major UK broadband provider, while Sky has focussed on targeted advertising but not content, and Freetime isn’t yet sniffing through your viewing habits.

With an expanding range of content providers – we’re expecting either Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant Video on board this year – YouView is preparing to offer recommendations of its own.

It’s a longer-term goal, especially since Lomax said YouView wants us to see useful recommendations without having to tell it who’s watching.

“A lot of people haven’t got time to search for content, they want to find something that’s relevant to them based on what they like watching, their preferences or what they’ve previously watched.

“YouView needs to make sure that everything we offer, every part of our user interface, gives you everything that’s most interesting and relevant to you, and not just something that we’ve guessed.

“We’re looking at all sorts of features to make sure you always get what’s right for you, the details are being worked out but the end game is to make sure we don’t ask too many questions of viewers and when you switch your box on, what you see is there is what’s relevant and hopefully you don’t have to scroll through pages of content – there’s something there for you almost immediately within a few clicks.”

The devil’s in the delivery, so there’s no telling exactly when all of these goodies will appear and with YouView there’s always a balance between the different partners.

Arguably Sky has had the technology lead in British TV for too long, hoarding new features until Virgin or Freeview caught up, then rolling out something new.

From the outside, YouView may look like a fractious partnership that’s like herding cats, but it still combines the ambitions and resources of wealthy and powerful organisations.

If those cats can be herded, a powerful fifth player could drive the same exciting expansion of new features that we’ve seen in the mobile phone business, at the same time as driving down the cost of getting your hands on the features and the all-important TV shows, films and sport they deliver how and when we want.

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