Boxee, Hulu and iView: new ways to watch TV

The days of standing on a slippery tile roof trying in vain to get a UHF antenna to angle into the wind of a summer thunderstorm while someone shouts from a windows below “better… no, worse… better!” could at long last be at an end — and not because of digital TV.

No, the era of broadcasting via an ultra high frequency radio transmission could soon be over, and indeed the whole concept of ‘broadcasting’ is being completely remodelled… by the internet.

Anyone with a decent ADSL2+ plan will probably have been offered IPTV as part of their package. And the ABC’s iView offering has been promoted at length via the national broadcaster’s traditional channels.

IPTV is, as the acronym suggests, like VOIP, except for TV. The Internet Protocol (or sometimes more generally known as the Information Protocol) is a standardised method of transmitting data via the net. It makes no distinction between a web page, a text document, an audio conversation or a streaming video file.

This means the internet, using IP, can carry your favourite TV channels, in anything from massively compressed, YouTube style snippets to full 1080i (or indeed 1080p) high definition.

What’s more, because IPTV gets to your display via a PC, it can benefit from all the clever tricks a PC can do. EPGs are pretty basic for IPTV — the real benefit here is content on demand.

Watch Gadget Guy’s latest segment when you want, not when the network wants. Re-watch last week’s episode of your favourite drama whenever you feel like it.

Indeed, devices such as hard drive recorders are rendered obsolete by IPTV. Why record when you can simply click on a thumbnail of the program you want to watch?

IPTV needs software to work. This can be as simple as an embedded player in your preferred web browser, and that’s fine if you want to get a quick cricket score in a tiny window on your desktop.

On the couch in front of a big TV though, you need something a little more elegant. A sleek interface, and compatibility with a universal remote, for a start. Something that turns the files and folders of a PC environment into a more recognisable TV-like channels model.

One free software package is Boxee. This application really shows off the capabilities of IPTV, since it does so much more than just flick through channels.

Boxee actually links your TV content with your preferred social networks. You can have your Twitter account automatically update what you’re watching. You can see what your friends are watching, and receive recommendations. And of course you can comment on your current program and send recommendations in turn out to your friends.

It’s important not to confuse IPTV with simply watching movie files store on your hard drive. IPTV programming isn’t physically loaded on to your PC — rather, it’s streamed via your ISP from a central server.

You need to specifically point your PC to that server, either using software or by visiting a specific web address (such as And this is where IPTV, for all its promise, runs afoul of its first real challenge.

As users of Skype and other VOIP applications will know, streamed communication is good but can suddenly drop out, or skip, or stutter. This is because the internet operates on what’s called a ‘shared core’.

To explain: the segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that carries free-to-air TV broadcasts is reserved specifically for those broadcasts. If you build a radio and start squirting out a transmission in TV’s reserved space, you’ll be slapped with a fine. When Channel 7 broadcasts on its frequency, there’s nothing else on that frequency, by law.

The internet, on the other hand, is not so much free-to-air as free-for-all. PCs on the net send out a request for a ‘packet’ of IP data, and receive that packet more or less when the internet gets a chance to send it. It’s not quite ‘first come, first served’ but it’s close.

Fortunately, the total bandwidth of the internet is so huge that these requests usually happen so fast you don’t realise you’re actually in a queue at all.

But when you’re streaming a high definition TV program, you’re requesting a lot of packets all at once. If traffic on the net suddenly spikes, your TV show could be delayed in the queue, and the image will stutter or even hang.

The solution to this is more bandwidth. And that’s where the National Broadband Plan (NBN) will help. With fatter pipes to everyone’s household, more data can be sent more quickly, making the streaming of high bandwidth content — like HDTV — practical.

At the moment, the average ADSL user can’t really stream an HD program. SD or compressed streams are fine.

But what about the content itself? Like everything, it needs to be licensed by the people who create it. In the US, a service called Hulu offers hundreds of different shows for free, at the click of a mouse button.

Hulu isn’t available in Australia yet, but services like the ABC’s iView do give a taste of things to come. TV when you want it, how you want it. Sure beats worrying about whether you’ve programmed the PVR properly…