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Guest Writer: Ben Hargreaves

According to recent statistics released from Broadband Forum, there were approximately 20.72m IPTV subscribers in Europe at the end of 2010, representing around 46% of the total IPTV subscribers in the world. With the advent of faster broadband and new technology, IPTV is getting ready to revolutionise the way in which people, and indeed societies, interact with television and how we view content. But despite these skyrocketing numbers, will the future success of IPTV depend on cloud computing?

Cloud computing, or ‘The Cloud’, has been mentioned in technical circles for a few years. It’s promise? To provide ubiquity and resources to users on a completely ‘on demand’ basis without having to know the mechanics of how it all works. Or to put it another way, to not need to be clever enough to understand everything that Professor Brian Cox says on BBC 2’s “Wonders of the Universe” programme without having to watch it twice.

The very nature of ‘The Cloud’ lends itself well to IPTV and there is already a clear synergy.  People go to IPTV because they don’t want to be tied down by schedules and content. Younger viewers of TV in its current guise are often too busy with the rigours of modern life, and as a result it’s a case of ‘I want’ and ‘now now now’!  At the moment, a viewer can easily fire up BBC iPlayer or 4OD as a means to catch up with anything that they’ve missed and at a time that suits them, but ‘The Cloud’ changes the playing field again.

Through the advent of cloud computing combined with IPTV, we are entering an age where we will have access to our favourite content at our fingertips. It would be like having a personalised video library that’s sole purpose is to serve you with content on an ‘on demand’ basis.  No user would ever be fitting their schedule around TV listings, as they would now be able to define what the schedule is.  Also, because ‘The Cloud’ has the ability to provide resources to IPTV applications on a ‘when you need it’ basis, IPTV applications could also be trained to the users habits. So for example if you liked movies from Scarlett Johansson, your IPTV application could access and recommend films to you just through the knowledge that you enjoy ogling Scarlett now and again. Because ‘The Cloud’ can serve up the resources to push content to users of a specific IPTV application, users could create a playlist of their favourite shows, and then add in all of their recommendations to watch when they wanted and on whatever device they wanted to use.  This example gives a small fraction of what could be achieved by combining ‘The Cloud’ with IPTV applications.

As a user I can now access my favourite content without having to worry about missing out if I didn’t catch the last episode of Celebrity Juice and want to see Keith Lemon’s weekly shenanigans. I can easily go to ITV Player and watch it in the comfort of my home when I want to.  But with ‘The Cloud’ and IPTV, this could be taken a step further, why can I not be connected to my content 24 hours, 7 days a week?  Well, with ‘The Cloud’ it’s no longer a pipe dream, but  a major reality.

As a nation more and more people are purchasing devices which are capable of receiving some form of IPTV, be it the latest Smartphone from Blackberry or HTC, an iPhone, a tablet such as an iPad or even the latest high definition digital TV from the likes of LG or Samsung.  In conjunction with cloud computing and IPTV we are headed towards a truly unique and behavioural shift in the way we interact with content. This means that potentially I can login to an account with an IPTV company that has specific content, start watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster on my iPhone, get home, and then pick up the rest of the film seamlessly in my home on my TV.  In short there are no barriers and potentially never anything that we wouldn’t want to watch anymore.  But whilst the advent of an age where users will have content on an ‘all you can eat’ basis approaches, should we slap a health warning on it all?

There are  many questions that could be asked, the first one being what happens to the linear channels that we all love and have access to. Realistically why would I ever need BBC One, BBC Two or Channel 4 again if I know I can access only the programmes that I want, on my terms and where I want through Internet TV.  In our opinion there will probably always be a place for linear channels on TV platforms, but the likes of Sky, Virgin Media, and even Freeview/Freesat must be sweating on the future of their services as the penetration of IPTV increases, and the audience and appetite for linear channels decreases. How would consumers even be able to compare Sky TV packages or compare Virgin Media services to an IPTV application, which is serving up content as and when?

The second pressing question is what will having access to content around the clock mean to us on a social level?  A recent study found that 80% of under 25’s used social networking services to discuss television programmes they were watching in real time.  Now call me old-fashioned but in the old days (really showing my age now!) we used to interact with our friends, colleagues, and peers in real life where we could show emotion and convey feelings.  With IPTV combining with ‘The Cloud’ there are also additional value added services such as Twitter and Facebook all thrown in. So potentially we could be sat in front of the TV watching X-Factor and typing out messages to friends along the lines of ‘dat Cheryl Cole iz well fit’, and you can already see the issue here.  Will we turn into a nation of couch potatoes ruled by our content and unable to have regular social interaction? This is possibly a little far-fetched but not inconceivable either.

There is also a cost and a technical issue potentially bubbling under the surface.  Cloud computing requires the release of resources in order to service the IPTV platforms that people will use and this resource has to come from somewhere, but where?  Broadband networks and wireless infrastructure in the UK isn’t particularly cutting edge when compared to the rest of the world, and new technology takes investment and time for people to adopt it.  The cost and provision of Internet services is already a contentious issue with many consumers.  Are enough consumers willing to pay additional amounts for services which guarantee a service offering suitable for IPTV and able to withstand the heavy demands expected of it? Especially when you consider streaming or downloading high-definition content which requires even more resource to do so.  Would IPTV users also want to pay for broadband services which are ‘guaranteed and approved’ for use with IPTV internet provision, and then also pay for a TV licence on top of this when they are moving away from the linear channels that they have been watching?  In short, who is and who should now be funding the content?  Is it the likes of YouTube, BBC iPlayer, SeeSaw and Vimeo who are all creating demand on the networks or should the consumer pay twice for the content that they want?

The full implications of  ‘all you can eat’ TV services are not yet clear and we will probably not know how everything will pan out until the revolution fully takes place.  But one thing is very clear and that is that cloud computing and IPTV belong together, whether it’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship or the creation of a monster is yet to be seen.

Ben Hargreaves is a regular contributor to digital tv comparison website Digital TV Selector.com

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