YouView chairman Lord Sugar kicked off the long-delayed UK launch of YouView with an appearance on breakfast television, before heading off to this morning's press launch in London. "This is a great moment in British television," he told ITV's Daybreak programme. "It's going to revolutionise the way we watch television."
While about 2,500 people have been trying the system, which will be available at the end of July, it remains to be seen whether consumers agree.
YouView provides a set-top box that TV viewers connect both to their digital TV aerial and to their internet broadband connection, which must be 3Mbps or better. The aerial provides up to 70 TV channels from the popular FreeView service, while the broadband connection provides catch-up TV via the BBC's iPlayer, 4OD, ITV Player, Demand 5, and so on.
Haven't you been able to do this for years? "Not on your television!" was Lord Sugar's reply.
The Wednesday morning Daybreak was unfortunately not sharp enough to point out that plenty of people have been doing that on their TV sets, by running the BBC's iPlayer on an internet-connected games console such as the Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PS3 or Nintendo Wii, and that these cost much less than the £299 YouView box. Many console users can also get on-demand movie and TV services.
However, it is true that YouView has the advantage of combining support for several services in a simple package.
YouView would, of course, have been a revolutionary product had it appeared a few years earlier. The development actually started with the BBC's Project Kangaroo, which was supposed to launch in 2008, before it was spun off as Project Canvas in partnership with ITV, BT, Channel 4 and Talk Talk. Instead of being a BBC exclusive, like iPlayer, the aim was to develop a common interface for Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) in the UK. It was supposed to be out by the end of 2010.
Kangaroo was blocked by the UK's Competition Commission because it might be "too powerful". Project Canvas was then seen as a threat by BSkyB and Virgin, which have their own commercial services, delivering TV programs via satellite and cable respectively. As political and technical problems piled up, some of us wondered if it would ever appear….
Things changed last March with the arrival of Alan Sugar, the founder of Amstrad, who has a successful track record in the set-top box business. He delayed the launch again, but must get some credit for actually shipping the thing.
Lord Sugar also understands the consumer appeal of YouView, and this has nothing to do with IPTV technology, which even in the UK has been in use since 1999. On Daybreak, Sugar pointed out that TV viewers with smart set-top boxes were used to looking through the week ahead. With YouView, he said, they could also look through the week behind.
That's something consumers want, and many will be willing to pay for it. They'll even pay twice the price of an Xbox 360, or forgo the PS3's built-in Blu-ray player, for the privilege.