Start-ups to Watch: Miniweb, adding interactivity to TV programming

With the launch of services such as FiOS from Verizon and U-Verse from AT&T, TV services in the US are finally entering the 21st Century, where widgets are now available on the TV such as local weather and traffic; it’s slowly becoming interactive.  As anyone from the UK will attest Sky, a satellite TV service provider, has been offering interactive programming since 2001 with the launch of the “Red Button.”  That is a simple red button on the TV remote that launches a mico-browser on the STB, which communicates over the dial-up telephone line for voting and getting more information on a topic (e.g. Sky News).  This concept was then extended to the Sky Key, a short-code that advertisers could use so people could go directly to the advertiser’s site.  Over dial-up, in my experience, anything more that voting was not an ideal user experience.  But with STBs (Set Top Box) finally going broadband, things have got interesting, and Miniweb is ideally positioned to create a new category in interactive TV.

Miniweb is a spin-out from Sky, they created the microbrowser and the TV Key platforms, and have now created a broadband interactive TV platform and standard based (WTVML) browser that can run on most set-top boxes.  This potentially makes the viewing experience of 382 million TV households worldwide, as rich as the internet, but with the ease of use of the TV.  Miniweb’s proposition is to create a new digital entertainment experience through the TV by enabling an Interactive TV experience that combines TV viewing, on-line services and interactive advertising. This generates revenue by connecting TV eyeballs through their products, relevant advertising, contextual links to content and broadcaster driven enhanced TV.  It’s a business model analogous to that of Google. What Google does for Internet advertisers, Miniweb wants to do on the TV.

The immediate question that comes to mind is to point out that the Wii and PS3 both include web browsers, so why won’t customers just use the existing web browsers on their TVs, especially given the growth of HDTV.  Here is where it’s important to examine the user experience.  When someone is watching TV it’s an engaging experience.  As an analogy, when I’m watching TV and the phone rings it’s an inconvenience, whilst when I’m at my PC surfing the web I do not think twice about checking CID (Caller ID) and answering.  This is a critical point, TV viewing is engaging, so a context-switch is a significant disruption to the user experience; hence why Miniweb subtly overlays their browser and integrates it with the TV channel and its content.

I’ve accessed the web using both the Wii and PS3 browsers, and though it’s nice to see on a HDTV, the PC it still a much easier user experience.  I’ve experienced the Miniweb platform and it’s not the web, its interactive TV, it’s a different and new experience that enables me to find out what song is being played on the program I’m watching, find-out the actors name while watching the show, see local traffic reports, find out more about the current news report, book a test-drive from the advert I’ve just seen, rate programs and share new discoveries with friends, and yes even order a pizza with the press of a couple of buttons on the remote.  It’s really just making an appropriate experience to the TV and the context in which people watch TV, rather than force-fitting the internet model.  Regardless of its commercial success Miniweb is an important experiment for the industry in creating new and innovative interactive experiences to understand how the TV/web experience is going to evolve.