Whether we like it or not, ecommerce has hit the ground running in 2000. The AOL/Time Warner merger is just the first of several high-profile alliances that are likely this year as dot.coms wake up to the fact that traditional media companies offer content resources and advertising connections vital to further the growth of online trading.
However, the Web is just one aspect of the ecommerce boom. The UK has been fortunate in leading Europe in the uptake of digital broadcasting.
All three major cable operators in the UK have embraced digital transmission and the increased capacity it brings to their networks. Other traditional land-based broadcasters, such as the BBC and the ITV regions, have begun their switch-over to digital broadcasting through the OnDigital vehicle which is co-owned by Carlton and Granada.
However, it was BSkyB that first broke into the UK digital market. Armed with a colossal level of capacity on the Astra satellite network, Sky Digital went on air to the public in October 1998.
In addition to nearly 200 channels of television, Sky Digital laid claim to the first interactive TV services. So far this has only taken two forms - football coverage offering a choice of camera angles, along with replays, stats and highlights on demand; and Open, a graphical shopping arcade and information service.
How Open works
The Open service works in a similar way to Teletext. It comprises a set of pages which are broadcast in rotation. The receiver unit captures the required page as it revolves around to be broadcast. However, unlike Teletext, Open pages are full colour, include sound, animation and moving video, and have more of a Web-page selection process, with menus and colour-coded key selections rather than page numbers to key in.
What's on offer is also different. The bulk of Open's content revolves around online shopping, with a growing selection of high-street shops and dot.com retailers (Dixons, Argos, Woolworths, Iceland and Gameplay) offering either all or part of their traditional inventory for sale via the service, often with special discounts). In the case of food retailers such as Iceland, this service is backed up with same-day home delivery services.
It's bundled together with a selection of information services, such as updated news, weather and cinema listings. All these sections also offer the opportunity for embedded advertising (example: while browsing cinema listings you could hit a link and buy tickets from Ticketmaster).
Finally, users can access a special version of BT's Talk21 Web-based email service. Access to this through Open does have its limitations, however. For example, you cannot access any file attachments, and navigation is much slower and more cumbersome than using the Web service. However, an account created with Talk21 can be accessed using both the website and the television service.
Of course, satellite-based delivery is in this instance only one-way. The uplink connection for the service is provided by the 28.8 modem built-in to the Sky Digital receiver.
Slow download times
The first thing that strikes you about using Open is that it is impressively simple to get to grips with. Navigation through pages is normally menu-based, selected using a set of arrow keys and a 'Select' button on either the receiver's remote control or using the optional £35 wireless keyboard.
The main problem with Open is speed. Download and selection times are still irritatingly long, despite the vast bandwidth available using satellite transmission. This is because of a combination of underpowered receiver hardware and the time it takes for the vastly populated delivery carousel to rotate. The receiver units are also prone to crashing, suggesting that the system software still has a few bugs to iron out. This became particularly apparent when attempting to quick-change between sections of the Open service.
Of course, not every retailer is able to offer a nationwide service. A great example of this was Domino's Pizza. I was greeted with an error message informing me that there was not a local store in my area, but only after I had spent more than 10 minutes browsing around Domino's section - a period that included assembling an order and going online for nearly four minutes at local rate. This sort of snag happens in other areas of the Open service, alas.
Despite the current hardware and software limitations, Open is developing well. It will be interesting to see how the technology develops over the coming year to more closely integrate with Sky's broadcasting efforts. Web-based shopping may yet have a formidable rival.
AT A GLANCE - OPEN INTERACTIVE TV
What it is: The UK's first interactive television service, offering shopping, banking, games, information services and email, delivered using a digital satellite receiver and viewed on a conventional television set.
Price: Hardware: free if you take out a Sky Digital subscription, £100 otherwise. Open: no subscription, although dial-up connection call charges are charged at either local rate or local rate+1p per minute for email.
Contact: www.open-here.co.uk 0870 6060 808
Open so far has the right idea with its content mix and intuitive control structure. However, its service is hampered by the time it takes for data to download, which is still significantly slower at times than the average website over a 56K dial-up connection, and reliability issues with the system software used in the Sky Digital receiver.
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