I met up with my friend Julian Kirby-Johnson today for a catch up on what he's doing.  Julian works  on the BT Vision project - he's the project manager for the delivery of the integrated solution to BT,020 working into the US.  The BT Vision product is developed by joint investment between Microsoft TV and BT with the Microsoft development based in Silicon Valley rather than in Redmond.

Microsoft TV

BT Vision is a great way to get more out of your TV without the need to get Sky or cable.  The TV market has 4 main groups of consumers today:

  1. Your traditional viewer watching the 5 analogue channels
  2. The Freeview viewer with some 55 channels, but the best stuff is often in the core 5 or so channels.  Some of these consumers also shell out for a PVR as well.
  3. The Sky population - people who in the early days wanted more channels or the sports/movies.  It can be hard to touch Sky now because the proposition is so strongly understood by the market and the exclusive sports agreements that Sky have built up over time can make it hard for new competitors to break in.  
  4. Virgin media - only cable company these days - some 200 - 900 channels - gives you some of the exclusive Sky content as well.

BT Vision is a new type of Freeview box, connected to up your aerial and with a built in PVR with 2 tuners, combined with all the broadband information.  The box itself is free from BT and no subscription but it does require a contract with BT ADSL (some £30/month) and there is a £60 installation charge.  It comes with the standard BT wireless hub and needs to have a minimum of 2Mb ADSL for BT Vision to work.

You get all sorts of information which can overlay onto the TV picture such as next programme information showing what's coming up next, full TV guide, record series etc.  The look of the interface is very similar to media center in Vista but the code is not shared with that team.  Rather they went for the same look and feel for consistency.  The guide is more comprehensive as it receives updates over ADSL, if programmes move it will record it correctly.

The really cool demo though is the video on demand.  Using IPTV, BT Vision will stream broadcast quality programmes from the enormous back catalogue.  You can also rent a movie, Blockbusters style, for only £2.99.  When you select the movie you want, it is available to be watched as much as you like for 24 hours.  At this point, BT guarantee a Quality Of Service of 1.6Mb to your ADSL as it connects to the infrastructure.  They can do this of course because they deliver the broadband.  This is far easier than renting from a shop or even using a LoveFilm or TV guide in HDAmazon rental style service (which I subscribe to at the moment).  I can really see it putting those traditional movie rental services in the past.

The quality is perfect broadcast quality with surround sound if supported.  The box also has an HDMI port which although the programmes are not streamed in HD (yet), all the menus sharpen up if shown on an HD ready screen.  A service launching later in the year will let you download programmes overnight in higher definition further extending this.

As Julian says, "What you find is the brightest ideas come for the best BT and Microsoft brains working together.  Both understand different areas of technology and complement each other well."

Other features are in there such as you can look up a company or a person from phone book and BT hangman demo gamewill place the call, phoning you and the recipient at the same time from the exchange. 

There are some rudimentary games built in which seems to be a toe in the water in another potentially lucrative market.  These proof of concept ideas are well executed in the offering.

BT have taken a while to get into this market and to get the offering right.  Microsoft engaged with BT in 2004 and the product launched on 4th December 2006.  Since then BT has some 15,000 users of the system.  Advertising is launching this month with the "BT family" starting to use the new offerings.  The real test will come at Christmas this year where BT expect to do well in the annual take up.

HDMI port on the back