Millions of people will be unable to access digital television unless manufacturers and service providers make their products easier to use, the government warned last week.
Following the publication of research that found digital TV equipment is much harder to use than existing analogue kit, e-commerce minister Stephen Timms called on the digital TV industry to wake up and pay more attention to usability. "Today’s digital TV equipment is confusing and difficult to use, even for people who take to new technology quickly," warned Timms.
"As many people as possible should enjoy the full range of television services. Manufacturers must recognise the opportunities and commercial rewards from designing products which are accessible to the widest range of consumers. We cannot expect people to fully embrace digital television unless it is simple and easy to install and use," the e-commerce minister added.
The government-backed research was carried out by The Generics Group. It found that around 2 million people -- around 7 percent of the UK population -- would be unable to use one of today's digital set-top boxes because the kit is too complicated, badly designed or "non-intuitive".
The government's approach to digital television is increasingly resembling a game of chicken. Its official policy is that it is committed to completing the switch from analogue to digital transmissions by 2010. However, some in the industry suspect this isn't achievable, which reportedly discourages manufacturers and television firms from large-scale investment in digital products and services -- making the doubts self-fulfilling.
Culture secretary Tessa Jowell banged the digital drum last week, insisting that the government is still committed to shutting down the analogue signal by 2010. "The advantages of digital are such that the question is not whether, but how and when we will achieve switchover," said Jowell, in a speech to the Royal Television Society's conference in Cambridge.
Taken together, these comments from Jowell and Timms indicate that the government is raising the stakes in the hope of convincing sceptics that digital switchover by 2010 will happen. Failure would be intensely embarrassing, but a successful execution would boost the UK's technology sector. As well as meaning large sales for manufacturers, it would also increase the number of citizens going online, via digital TV-based Web browsers.