Some quick thoughts on Canvas

by danhon

Project Canvas – Google search, amusingly, predictably and depressingly, the top result is someone’s blog entry rather than anything official, and another search yields a 404, at which point you’re wondering: why bother, really, but I digress – anyway, Project Canvas (actual BBC Trust supporting documentation with Googlejuice as good as a wet sock, it’s almost as if they didn’t want responses to the consultation and had hit the project at the bottom of the stairs in a filing cabinet with a sign saying ‘beware of the leopard’ – you get the idea) is a new set top box proposal from BT, ITV and the BBC that, very simply, is (I believe) aimed at doing this:

  • Freeview telly;
  • PVR functionality; (Freeview+, formerly Freeview Playback or Freeview Playback)
  • and, a new thing, telly content (and maybe more?) delivered over some sort of broadband connection

I am interested in the latter.

There are a few things we can unpack here from the third bullet.

  • We could deliver telly over broadband (by which I mean linear video of varying length, like a TV programme); AND/OR
  • We could deliver Other Things over broadband, because we have a reasonable two-way pipe for the first time

Let’s deal, very quickly, with the telly stuff, because telly is a multi-billion dollar industry and employs lots of people right now.

  • You think you have enough channels now on Sky? You’re going to have a zillion. You’re going to have a gabillion googleillion, and I don’t use the term Googleillion lightly. Because what Canvas could do – and what its proponents think they have to do to get Canvas past the competition commission – is offer a level playing field. ANYONE could put telly on Canvas. (That includes You, sitting at home on your sofa, with a video of your kitten) as well as You, Ms. CEO of Super Indie) without having to bother with things like scheduling or finding a “broadcaster”.
  • Some things – people, organisations – will help You the Audience find what you want to watch. Sometimes this is easy: you know what BBC One kinds of things are and what Channel 4 kinds of things are and Dave kinds of things. (Yes, I know, Dave as it stands with only a few original commissions and mostly reruns of successful content would probably need to be a Different Kind of Thing).
  • Telly is boring. More people can make it, more people can distribute it, but good telly will probably always cost a lot to make. Good things, no matter what they are, will probably always cost a lot to make, or more to make than less good things (for certain values of ‘good’).

There is a simple way of dealing with this, because really, this is what the telly part of Canvas is:

  • it’s telly, but on the internet. Anyone can distribute.

So for Canvas to survive, Canvas needs to be open. Otherwise the internet will win. (The internet will win anyway, and Canvas is only a medium term – say, 10-15 years, tops product anyway).

All Canvas is, for the telly part, is a trusted, branded box, that shows telly content that will probably already be on the internet (iPlayer, Hulu, Spotify for TV) on your television.

But here’s the thing. Your television is just a screen now. It can show anything it wants. And the internet doesn’t care what screen is attached to it, whether it’s a 30in PC monitor, a 52in 1080P “telly”, an iPhone or a Nokia N95 or a Netbook or an Asus Eee or a One Laptop Per Child. It doesn’t care. It’s just moving electrons around.

Canvas, though, and if I were Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo I might be shitting myself, can do one other thing.

It has a broadband internet connection.

  • So you could make games on it.
  • Or have a special British Museum application or service.
  • Or pay your, er, licence fee.
  • Or write an entry on your blog.

Up until the ‘your blog’ bit Canvas looked a bit like The Information Superhighway, where Content People would Deliver You Content.

But what if anyone could create content that Canvas displayed on that one big screen in your house, the telly?

What if anyone who, for instance, could work out how to code a website, could make something that worked on your telly?

The BBC has done this before with the BBC Micro. It took a computer, and put it in the hands of middle class people whose kids locked themselves in their bedrooms and built, for a time, the world’s leader in videogames. Amongst other things.

You see, if Canvas had a Standards Compliant Browser – something that did HTML4+ and Javascript and adhered to published specifications, or even had an open source browser like Webkit or Firefox and had HTML5 with local storage, imagine what we could make?

And by we, I mean everyone: companies. Individuals. The next Facebook. The next Hot or Not. The next Tetris. The next They Work For You.

And wouldn’t that be something?

All we need is for Canvas to be open and to adhere to already existing standards.

Put a browser on it. HTML5 in draft, upgradable, with all the bells on. I’d even not mind if Flash was on it. Adobe might even cut a deal. It’d be in their interests, anyway.

Make it open. Make it like the internet so anyone can put anything on it – you just have to find it.

That way: Canvas gets great content – telly, or anything else – and so do we, but so does the entire internet, and so does the entire world.