By Barry Flynn, Contributing Editor
At IBC 2015, ACCESS was demonstrating its NetFront browser, a customised version of which is to be integrated into Europeâ€™s first HBBTV 2.0 platform, Freeview Play, due to launch in October 2015 â€“ initially on Panasonic smart TVs.
The NetFront product supports HTML-5, a key element of the latest version of HbbTV. This is at the core of all modern web browsers and is capable of offering a true-cross platform experience in a multiscreen environment, including for smart TVs.
Robert Guest, ACCESSâ€™s Global Product Director, said the combination of the two technologies addressed the lack of standards in the smart TV sector. Currently, â€œpeople have to develop apps for different brands of TV. They are then beholden to the SDKs that come out of those [TVsâ€™] vendors. It makes it a minefield for the app developers,â€ he said. But now, â€œyou’re getting standardization across multiple devices based on a single run-time engine, if you like. That’s that first step to trying to make things smarter.â€
In theory, this could encourage the development of a write-once, run-anywhere content authoring environment, says Guest. â€œThat’s the dream for HTML-5. There’s this term, responsive design, which is all about designing your content so that it will re-size and reshape itself based on the dimensions the display area has. Therefore, in theory, you could absolutely write it so that it works on your high-resolution desktop monitor, then re-scales itself down to live on your TV.â€
Freeview Play is the â€˜connectedâ€™, hybrid version of the UKâ€™s terrestrial DTT platform, Freeview, and deploys the Project Uno software solution, which integrates ACCESSâ€™s NetFront Browser NX HbbTV Profile onto Pixsanâ€™s middleware and OS platform, alongside S&Tâ€™s RedKey MHEG-5 engine for backwards compatibility with legacy MHEG apps.
One of the immediate and practical consequences for Freeview of this solution is that it can deliver access to IP-delivered content such as catch-up TV from directly within a â€˜backwards-and-forwardsâ€™ EPG, a feature already available on the competing connected TV platforms of Sky, Virgin Media and YouView. Previously, smart TV Freeview users were compelled to navigate to the different broadcastersâ€™ own catch-up apps to view their on-demand content.
Guest suggested that through Freeview Play, accessing IP content would now be a much more â€œfluidâ€ experience, offering more consistency of navigation across different vendorsâ€™ smart TVs. However, the Freeview Play UI will not integrate content from non-Freeview channels, meaning that apps for paid-services like Netflix and Amazon will lie outside it â€“ albeit presumably still within a common HTML-5 framework.
Guest notes that previously, HTML-5â€™s adoption by video service providers had been held up by the fact that it was difficult to support protected content like Netflixâ€™s in a standardized way. â€œThe Netflixes of this world, for example, wouldn’t be on many TVs unless they had their own bespoke apps.â€
However, there were now two new sets of APIs being proposed for HTML-5 and promoted by Google, Microsoft and Netflix that â€œeffectively give you a more standardised way of playing back premium [encrypted] content,â€ he said. Following conversations with Netflix on the Access stand at IBC, Guest said he understood that a final agreement on including these ‘encrypted media extensions’ within the HTML-5 standard was â€œmaybe not quite there yet,â€ but he remained optimistic that an agreement would be forthcoming.