Open lacks substance to power digital domination

BSkyB’s home shopping service has the potential but not yet the substance to power a major onslaught and win UK viewers to digital TV

Since the launch of digital TV last autumn there has been much talk about the additional benefits this new technology will bring to viewers. Would the promise of more channels and wall-to-wall films programming succeed in tempting the two-thirds of the population who have yet to opt for the multichannel digital choice? Certainly, there are those who believe that TV shopping will deal the killer blow to analogue.

Open – the home shopping system owned by BSkyB, BT, HSBC and Matsushita – went live on Sky Digital at the start of this month. Cable & Wireless Communications’ interactive service, which also includes home shopping, launched in Manchester last week.

Banking, home shopping, entertainment and e-mail are now technically possible through the television. All that is needed is a subscription, a credit card, and a remote control handset.

The Open system is a little clunky compared with the Electronic Programme Guide on Sky Digital, but after you go through the initial menu of services it is easy to navigate.

Some parts of the service are not yet available. E-mail and home banking, for example, will not start until the autumn. The current range of goods is pretty limited, but you do get a flavour of what will be possible later.

I had already seen demonstrations of Open, so I asked my family to see how they coped with the system.

My wife quickly found the Woolworths site in the shopping menu and decided to order a music CD. She then had the choice of either saving her selection in a virtual shopping trolley or paying for it there and then.

She pressed the “pay now” button and an on-screen message came up to tell her the box was dialling out, at local call rate. But then a problem occurred.

An on-screen message warned that no dialling tone could be found, and when we telephoned Sky to check the problem, they confirmed that our modem was not working. We will need a visit from an engineer, we were told. He is due to arrive later this week.

Next to test the service is my six-year-old son Barney. We took him through to the entertainment site where five games were on offer. He chose one called Sheep Dip. He spent hours rounding up sheep using the arrow keys to manoeuvre the strangest looking sheepdog I’ve ever seen. Barney enjoyed himself enormously, and his view is that Open is a good thing.

For the rest of us, however, I fear it is early days yet.

If Open is regarded as BSkyB’s best weapon to push its digital offering then the case is still to be made. Admittedly it is the first company in the world to attempt offering this type of service, but much work lies ahead before it is perfected.

Ivan Clark is director of TV strategy at MediaCom TMB

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