Interactive digital TV roll-out
My company has been developing e-business solutions for our customers for about a year. We want to start developing Interactive TV (iTV) as a channel for e-commerce, with a view to being ready to roll out an iTV service in six months' time. From what you have seen, what steps do we need to take to make this reality? Are there any security or technology issues we need to consider? What are the pitfalls we could face?
Develop Repurposable content
You will need a new interface for the new iTV offering. If users try to access a Web site not tailored for iTV, they will most likely find that half the is screen is missing.
More tricky to solve is how this new interface will map onto and pull through the content you have already developed for your Web site, avoiding the need to create a separate repository just for iTV. Maintenance of two sets of content is a particular nightmare for companies selling via iTV, where product lines, order status information and promotions can all change on a daily basis, and even more so for those offering truly dynamic content.
The key to getting around this is to start by ensuring all your content is parsed and tagged using XML, which will give you a generic format for presenting it. A presentation engine will also need to be developed, which makes use of XSLT (Extensible Style-sheet Templating), a standard that gives device-independent style and layout control to interactive content. Essentially, it breaks down the information and feeds it out according to each channel's requirements. This means only one, generic set of content needs to be developed and maintained, which can then be repurposed for different channels, with the look, feel and level of detail adapted according to the interface design.
In short, avoiding the need to develop separate infrastructures for iTV will be a key step for companies wanting to make new moves in the e-business space.
Three key security issues
From a security perspective, there are three essential areas to address: ensuring that only those authorised to receive can do so; ensuring access points cannot be abused from users' homes; and convincing customers that home systems won't be abused from the Internet.
The first issue is a technical issue, addressed by smartcards, encryption boxes, specified address traffic and the like. But it is also a legal issue. Some of the leading suppliers of iTV services have had to face legal challenges based on a perceived loophole in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, which says that encrypted TV traffic cannot be illicitly received, but doesn't define what "encrypted" means. That is, does the (usually very simple) scrambling process for TV signals count as encryption? As an expert witness I have argued that it does, and we have been successful. However, life would be so much simpler if more overtly powerful scrambling measures were used.
User abuse is an out-and-out technical issue, and involves adequate design of the infrastructure and protection of the services. Most off-the-shelf implementations leak a small amount of network security information, but not enough for anything more than the truly determined hacker to benefit by.
Users have asked whether, by receiving HTTP traffic to their TV, their TV can be hacked. In the technical implementation of the solution it is always tempting to ignore such "marketing" issues, but I would argue that they are the true focus of the security measures.
Engage a skilled partner
You have two potential choices when it comes to selling on iTV: building a presence on an iTV portal (such as Sky Digital's Open... or NTL Interactive) or creating an interactive channel - think QVC meets Amazon (not a pretty picture, but you get the gist).
The technology to create the interactivity behind both options is going to remain broadly the same, but if you are creating a new iTV channel, creating compelling content for broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week will be a huge challenge, as will convincing the ITC to grant you a license to broadcast and sell.
For both approaches, there are platform issues to contend with. The capabilities of the set top box are dependent on the way the signal comes into the home and who the carrier of that signal is. This is because there is not yet a single standard to develop against. However, you may find you do not need to develop for all platforms - you may want to target a particular audience. The good news is that you immediately acquire a large potential customer base with a semi-fragmented demographic from the digital TV provider's subscriber base, transferring much of your customer acquisition costs to the digital TV operator.
Unless you happen to be particularly well-resourced with staff with iTV experience, you will need to engage an external partner who can help support your strategy. Your partner needs to understand the broader iTV medium, digital branding, and have demonstrable experience in designing for the end-user. The right support here will make a critical contribution to the success of your iTV venture.
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This was first published in October 2000