Monday interview: Amino's Mike Leigh on taking Internet TV back to the living room

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In some ways, YouTube is just a big melting pot of stuff you’ve already seen on normal TV. I spent 20 minutes in tears of laughter at a succession of ‘animal falls off furniture’ clips last week (yes, I know I need to get out more), while there’s enough ageing soft-rock vids to fill a week’s worth of VH1. But plenty of it is original too, from bonkers lip-synchers through to worryingly-honest videobloggers.

Many of us could happily fill a whole evening surfing YouTube rather than settling down onto the sofa to watch proper TV. But why can’t we have the best of both worlds, and watch a few hours of hilarious web clips from our sofas, on the telly rather than on a computer monitor? It’d be like Home Entertainment 2.0 (and I’m claiming that term if it ever takes off).

An announcement today from IPTV firm Amino seems to answer this request. The company is launching a device called the AmiNET125i, which is a set-top box "which allows consumers to browse and access video content from the Internet on their television". Great, YouTube on the telly! Well, not quite. But Amino’s Mike Leigh explains what it’s about, and how the company expects it to change web-heads’ viewing habits. 

The driving force behind AmiNET125i (if I’m honest, I reckon they could have come up with a catchier title) is the fact that most telecoms companies are using a walled garden model when it comes to TV. Sign up to, say, NTL, and you get a choice of channel packages, but they’re still channels that have a commercial relationship with NTL.

Leigh likens it to the AOL approach in the early days of the Web, with its  walled garden of content. Yet at the same time, there is a parallel trend that younger people are drifting away from watching TV at all, in favour of getting their entertainment online.

"There’s this almost maverick renegade trend of people saying ‘I want to see the content when I want to see it, through my own navigation’," says Leigh. "They want to go and pick it out of YouTube, MySpace, Bebo or wherever. And that trend will grow as that 16-24 year-old segment gets older."

The press release announcing AmiNET125i is a little misleading, in that it quotes an industry analyst talking about YouTube, Google Video and iTunes, while elsewhere it mentions MySpace. The device won’t actually let you watch content from these sources on your TV, at least not in the early days.

Instead, it’s designed to deliver Windows Media 9 and MPEG-4 video streams to your TV direct from your broadband connection, whether wired or wirelessly. The device also supports Windows Media Digital Rights Management 10, and includes an embedded HTML 4 browser with JavaScript support, to resize content to your TV screen.

So what can you watch? Amino has partnered with Internet TV firm Narrowstep, and will initially be offering the latter’s portfolio of channels, which includes everything from GolfBug.tv, ITV Local and The Baby Channel through to Martial Arts TV and Teachernet. Which is all very cool, but it sounds a bit like… a walled garden.
 
Leigh accepts that, but says the aim is to get people used to the concept before launching them into full unfettered access to Web video. Amino has three target audiences in mind for the box. Firstly, there’s ex-pats – people living abroad who want to watch TV channels from their native country. He gives the example of Polish people who’ve come to live in the UK, so I daresay the Daily Mail will be frothing at the mouth over AmiNET125i any day now for encouraging this sort of thing.

Secondly, there’s the niche audiences: cyclists, golf nuts, and so on. They’re the core audience for many of the channels that Narrowstep provides. "Many of these channels have audiences of 200,000 to 400,000 people," says Leigh. "You can make a decent business model out of running those channels, but they wouldn’t interest the likes of NTL/Telewest. Rather than expect people to watch that on their computers, we’re putting the content where it deserves to be: on TV."

Finally, Amino is also targeting businesses – accountants, lawyers, surveyors or anyone who needs to do continual professional education. For home use, in the early days Amino plans to offer AmiNET125i to ISPs who can us it to add extra value to their broadband packages (and also try and avoid the trend towards broadband becoming a free ‘commodity’). But Amino has ambitions beyond this.

"In 18-24 months time, we want to expand from that model to being something where you might get your broadband access from an ISP, but then you’d buy this set-top box from Amazon, Dixons etc, and then get top-up cards which are read by the set-top-box to give you specific paid-for content, whether it’s Hollywood movies or Playboy. Anything where you need a subscription or to check who you are."

Again, this is all cool, but will it mean watching literally whatever you want on your TV, and particularly user-generated content from YouTube, MySpace and so on? Leigh says there are a few issues that will need to be sorted out, including the business model of how sites like YouTube make money. But there’s also technical challenges.

"Nearly all the content out there now has been prepared with Windows Media 9 and Microsoft DRM in mind," says Leigh. "But Google and Yahoo are using Flash 8 codecs, so that question needs to be resolved. It doesn’t make a difference to us, as we can write the codecs, but what configuration does the box need to run?"

Of course, one pertinent question is whether those 16-24 year-olds Leigh mentions are fussed about bringing Web TV back to the living room? After all, they seem quite happy migrating away from sitting on a sofa watching stuff, towards sitting in front of a PC doing stuff, including watching but also all the interactivity that goes around it. Do they want to be dragged back to the lounge?

"It’s true up to a point, but on the other side, those people are now or will very soon be buying HD televisions, and who want the large TVs that both presentationally and socially make an impact," says Leigh. "If there was content that they could put on their TV rather than on a PC, I think they would be very keen to."

But in that case, surely they won’t want to watch grainy web videos on their big screen? Leigh points out that as people upgrade their broadband connections, the quality of Internet TV will improve, which will start to solve this problem. But he has other thoughts.

"If you’ve got HDTV and you’re watching HD content, do you want to go back and watch channels on a PC that you could otherwise get on a TV? No. It’s a regressive move. It may take a while for that content to be presentationally HD, but it will certainly be a better viewing experience than on a PC. I won’t say that very soon we’re going to get HD content from YouTube or even Narrowstep, but people will start to look at viewing on a PC as inferior to viewing on a TV, and especially so if that content is fit for a shared experience."

AmiNET125i is an intriguing device, and the idea of Internet TV on your, well, TV is a great one. But when someone invents a box that really does give you access to unlimited amounts of user-generated web videos, that’s when things will get really exciting. AmiNET125i is at least a first step to bringing those thousands of lip-synchers into your living room. I think that’s a good thing, anyway.

Stuart Dredge