The future of just about everything is tied up with the Internet, and nothing is more tied up than television. This means IPTV, the delivery of television content over the Internet for viewing on a TV. There’s confusion over exactly what IPTV is and what it will be like when it becomes universal. Let me explain.
I begin the explanation by describing how the Internet has affected newspapers and magazines. Newspapers are particularly vulnerable to the economics of the Internet. When a newspaper is put online, the costs of paper, ink, printing presses, printers, trucks, newsstands, middlemen, and paperboys are eliminated. Online newspapers are thus more financially competitive than their print counterparts.
IPTV does the same thing to broadcasters that online periodicals do to print publishers, but with one huge difference: The final product, with all its cost advantage, can be identical to the old broadcast version. Programming delivered over the Internet appears exactly as it does when delivered over the airwaves, cable, or satellite. Newspapers, on the other hand, appear much different in print than they do on the Internet; the differences give print newspapers the space to continue to exist. So the Internet delivery of TV is even more dangerous to conventional broadcasters than the threat of online newspapers is to conventional publishers.
Understandably, people confuse watching TV on their computers with IPTV. Watching a TV show on the computer is a form of IPTV, but it’s not what IPTV is all about. IPTV is about the television, hence the letters "TV," as in your TV set.
Across Europe and parts of Asia, IPTV is much further along than in the U.S. I’ve seen IPTV running over 30-megabit-per-second broadband connections that deliver it not only as download-and-play but also as real-time streaming video that functions exactly as cable TV does. Though cable TV can offer the American viewer most of what IPTV will eventually deliver, it cannot deliver everything in the world. IPTV will be able to deliver all the content in the world, on demand, once it is universalized.
With IPTV, I’ll be able to watch news broadcasts from Slovenia if I want to, or independent home-brew TV shows, or new videocasts, or video podcasts such as my own Cranky Geeks. Originally available only online, Cranky Geeks is now distributed over a progenitor of IPTV via the download-and-play mechanism of TiVo. TiVo has begun to redistribute numerous independent shows and is planning to distribute content from dozens of other independent producers. This is an IPTV play, although not a perfect one.
TiVo’s download-and-play feature is based somewhat on the IPTV download-and-play concepts developed by Akimbo, but the viewer selections are not infinite. Instead, they’re preselected by the vendor of the set-top box. In the ideal IPTV scenario, anyone at any time can watch anything in the entire world that is deliverable over the Internet. You wouldn’t need a Slingbox to watch your local TV; you’d be able to get it over the Internet when you wanted it.
All TV content that has ever been produced could thus be made available over an IP stream whenever you want it. The current rigid model of time-constrained TV programming is seriously dead. Owners of DVRs know that the notion of being told that they have to watch a show at a particular time—otherwise they’ll miss it and may never get to see it—is silly. IPTV eliminates the old model completely. Internet-only continuous dramas are already emerging—Port City PD is a perfect example—and these will all become IPTV programs.
IPTV eliminates the overhead of traditional broadcasters as well as geographical constraints. This means that more shows will be available to a worldwide audience. It means that independent producers can develop a reasonably large audience in ways not possible with traditional broadcasting models. Cranky Geeks already has two to three times the number of viewers I ever got with Silicon Spin, a similar cable show I hosted.
The key to IPTV is that not much will change from the viewers’ perspective except that the number of shows will be enormous and availability will not be dictated by time of day or geography. If I wanted to watch the first season of Alias as broadcast in France overdubbed in French, I would be able to find that feed and watch it in HD at home tonight at 7:00. This opens up a world of possibilities for programmers, producers, and broadcasters. But it really serves the public, more than anything else, by eliminating the current limitations of TV viewing.