Canadian MSO Le Groupe Vidéotron Ltée is the latest operator to take the interactive-TV plunge, using a system jointly developed by Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and PowerTV Inc.
The Quebec-based company has started marketing its iLLICO interactive service, offering electronic mail, Web browsing, chat and local content to some 100,000 digital TV customers. It is the first full commercial launch for the joint S-A/PowerTV interactive system.
iLLICO employs older S-A Explorer 2000 and 3000 models backed up by headend application servers — "a very cost-effective thin client set-top box with thick-box functionality," according to PowerTV vice president of marketing Chuck Kaplan.
The set-top boxes run a PowerTV HyperText Markup Language applications engine, S-A network software and a crop of applications — including e-mail, chat and Web surfing — jointly designed by PowerTV and S-A. Though the boxes are less sophisticated than later-generation Explorers and lack a hard drive, they can accept software upgrades via download from a headend server, Kaplan said.
The system also uses its download capability to get around the box's limitations. The headend servers act as a remote processor and hard drive, running some applications and accessing content on the boxes' behalf.
"There are some applications which reside in the box and some applications that actually download upon use, so you can install them on a server in a headend, and have them downloading each time a user invokes the use of those," Kaplan said.
Customers will be assigned new e-mail addresses for the system, rather than using existing accounts from other service providers. They also can opt to buy a keyboard from S-A.
Vidéotron has used the system's open-specifications platform to created its own "walled garden" electronic-commerce channel. Kaplan said that will be an important selling point for ITV.
"When it comes to developing walled-garden content, more and more, I think, cable operators are bringing in more of their preferences for content and wanting to define what it looks like and how it operates," he said.
Since this is the first full-market rollout, Scientific-Atlanta and PowerTV will look to gain some real-world usage information. So far, trials have indicated that despite the skepticism, viewers will use the TV to surf the Web or send e-mail messages.
"A long time ago people were asking questions: 'Will they do it on this device or that device?' " asked Kaplan. "And the answer is yes.
"There are lots of devices out there for doing e-mail, and to do it on the TV in certain situations is quite natural," he added. "Also, in the studies, one of the most popular features was surfing the Web, particularly to certain, specific sites. What the Vidéotron folks have learned is that certain kinds of sites are more relevant to the natural TV watching environment. For example, weather is a very natural thing on TV."
One key strategy is to allow the video window to stay active while users surf the Web or use an e-mail application, Kaplan said.
"You are still watching TV while you surf the Web or do e-mail," Kaplan noted. "That's really one of the important parts of the interface design, is that it still is TV."
The field trials have given the two companies some sense of usage, "but until you really get into a broad, mass-market sense you don't really have the larger, more valid statistics," Kaplan said.
Shaky economic conditions, uncertain business models and competing telephony and data priorities have prompted many North American MSOs to slow or scale back their ITV service offerings. Kaplan hopes the Vidéotron rollout will help the interactive market regain some momentum.
"Vidéotron really took a proactive approach toward getting these Internet-on-TV features up and running, and launched to a large consumer segment," he said. "I think there are a whole lot of folks watching now who want to see, 'What are the penetration rates and what are consumers willing to pay?'
"Just watching what is happening in Montreal now is an opportunity to create a lot more interest," said Kaplan.