YouView finally launched today, after years of delays, renaming, and other issues. But what exactly is it? How did it get to its current shape? And how can it compete with other services on offer?

Read on and find out.

YouView set-top boxes will go on sale later this month, made by Humax. Sir Alan Sugar himself made an appearance at this morning’s launch in London town to make the announcement. YouView looks to bring together the best of Freeview and on-demand viewing with no need for a subscription, which is a pretty tempting prospect. But it’s been a long time coming.

Project Canvas

Announced on 11 December 2008, YouView started life under the working title of Project Canvas, and was only rebranded as YouView in September 2010. This rebranding was originally thought close to launch, as the service was expected to be in homes by the end of 2010. Yeah that didn’t happen.

It had quite a rocky start, following as it did the doomed Project Kangaroo. Kangaroo was never launched, as it was deemed to flout competition rules. (Project Kangaroo eventually became SeeSaw, an internet TV service that was shut down late last year.)

Early issues

With so many partners, things were bound to not run smoothly. Channel 5 signed up to the project, then pulled out a year later. Then later that year, the channel was taken over by Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell, and got back on board with YouView.

With all the deals signed, it’s ended up a joint venture between the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, and ITV, as well as communication companies Arqiva, BT and TalkTalk.

Seeing as auntie was on board, the project had to be approved by the BBC Trust.

In 2009 the Trust gave provisional approval, then final approval the following year, but only after producing a 392 page document, and receiving more than 800 written responses. Its approval came with a number of conditions attached. Technical specifications had to be published for the industry to see. The service will always be free-to-air, though paid-for extras can be added on top. And it’ll have to be fairly accessible no matter which ISP you’re with. All of which sounds pretty reasonable.

The Office of Fair Trading confirmed it wouldn’t investigate Project Canvas over competition issues, as none of those involved in the joint venture were contributing a “pre-existing business”. So it looked ok from that perspective.

In October last year, Ofcom announced it wouldn’t investigate YouView despite receiving complaints, saying it was too early and they would have to wait to see how the market develops. But it will continue to monitor developments. So again, all clear.

Criticisms of the project

Sky has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been a strong critic of YouView. Its main bone of contention is the fact YouView receives public funding, while private sector businesses like Sky have to raise their own funds. The UK’s Intellect Technology Association has said YouView risks isolating the UK as a “technological island” by creating an IPTV standard just for these shores. The Digital TV Group, meanwhile, said there existed “widespread concern” that the technology standards were being worked on without the involvement of the makers of set-top boxes or TVs. Its fear was these players would be left out of the next wave of innovation.

Virgin Media’s chief executive, Neil Berkett, called the BBC Trust’s consultation a “shameless whitewash that contravenes almost every principle of good regulation”. Strong words indeed. Virgin Media also lodged a complaint with Ofcom, claiming project Canvas was an anti-competitive cartel that would crush the online TV market. But Ofcom brushed these aside, saying it would see how the market goes before taking any action.

The launch

And now it’s here. Finally. So what do we have?

The YouView box is made by Humax, with a 500GB hard drive and two tuners, so you can watch one channel while recording another. On-demand services like BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD and Five On Demand are there as standard, and it’ll add Scottish channel STV and Sky’s Now TV at some point. It’s aimed at making catch-up and internet telly accessible to technophobes, and it seems to do that very capably. The only catch is the fact it costs £300.

There are also plenty of features still to be added, so if you buy at launch you’ll be getting a “carcass” of the final version, according to Lord Sugar.

The price is obviously too high, but hopefully that’ll come down soon, as with any new technology. Internet TV is still in its infancy, as you can see from the fact Google TV still hasn’t launched in the UK. The market is crying out for a user-friendly budget alternative to the likes of smart TVs and even Google’s effort, which has been plagued with usability issues.

YouView isn’t there yet. But if the price can come down by at least £100, and it can get these new features sharpish, it could well end up being worth the wait after all.

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