Monday, 16 October 2006 18:29

Online services are maturing - PS3 and Wii offerings coming soon

With the US and Japanese launch of PlayStation 3 set for November, an exciting new element for the PS3 will be the inclusion of an online service to rival that of Xbox 360 and Nintendo’s Wii. A vital element for any connected console, online services delivered through your TV was once but a dream, but nowadays it’s commonplace. The question is where are online services going?

With broadband and usage of the Internet at an all-time high, the promise of online services with downloadable content, video on demand and interactivity, all displayed on your TV set instead of a computer screen, are finally being fulfilled on a global scale.

Early versions of TV based online services include Viatel and Teletext in Australia, and Minitel in France. Minitel was a success because each household was issued a computer terminal which gave you access to a phone book, ecommerce, chat rooms, messaging and other services. Everyone had it, good content was available and the Internet wasn’t around yet. 

In Australia, the Viatel service offered the same types of functions, but as terminals weren’t provided by the phone companies, it never took off. Teletext is still available on televisions in Australia, but unless you’re into horseracing, few people I know ever bother with Teletext as virtually all the information you can get from it is available, at much faster speeds, much prettier graphics and high resolution text through your browser. Still, Teletext is a real online service that a surprisingly big number of people should be able to access it with a modern TV, if they even know it’s there!

The other big online service is obviously the Internet itself. Now that you can easily plug modern computers into any flat screen TV or projector using a standard VGA cable (or a DVI cable if the screen supports it and your computer also has it) and get the big screen experience any time. Computers running Windows XP (with or without Media Centre Edition), a version of Windows Vista, an iMac or a Linux box can be plugged into your big TV and you can do anything you want.

Play games, surf the web, download music, movies and TV shows legally (for Windows users BigPond now offers paid downloads of top BBC programs such as Dr Who, The Office and a range of others along with the movie download service they started a few months ago), use your computer as a digital media jukebox, watch and record live TV and more.

But going online and getting information is no longer just done through computers. Selected mobile phones from Nokia and Samsung can be connected to your TV now, while future Windows Mobile smartphones will also have this capability, transforming your phone into a connected set-top box, browser, media player, emailer, big screen video conferencing device and more.

Console based online services have been growing over the past few years, although until now more slowly than the growth of the Internet itself. They've started moving away from their purely game oriented roots and have branched out, offering many capabilities only a modern computer could equally offer.

Online services let you download game demos, movie trailers, extra levels, buy and sell game items, buy new games, interact with other players, play multiplayer games and more. Xbox Live for the Xbox 360 has proven spectacularly successful, with a much greater sign up and participation rate than the original Xbox, proving that console owners enjoy the benefits that broadband Internet connectivity has brought to their console entertainment experience.

Upgrades to online services for the Xbox 360 and the PS3 could easily allow you to purchase movies, TV shows and music to be stored directly onto the hard drive, while the possibility of letting you purchase full games, rather than the smaller games available on Xbox Live Arcade, is also very real although it would come at the expense of sales through the retail channel, where sales of consoles usually occurs for most people.

An excellent hands-on preview of the PS3’s upcoming online service from Eurogamer goes into great detail on how the service has dramatically evolved from the PS2’s experience, as it is now designed from the ground up to take full advantage of online services, instead of bolting them on afterward as with the PS2, which didn’t come with a network port as standard when it was first introduced.

The interface is styled on that of the PSP, with smooth animation and a range of services from ecommerce, downloadable trailers and content and other features which essentially match and in some cases exceed the Xbox 360 online experience, including the ability to surf the web with a proper browser and even plug in a USB keyboard to make web address and data entry much easier than with a controller. One notable omission is communications with fellow players while playing a game as with Xbox Live. That ability is slated to come if there is demand from the users, according to the Eurogamer article, although this is surely something users want. A bonus is that access to the PS3 service won’t require a monthly subscription to engage others in multiplayer gaming, as it does with Xbox Live Gold, virtually guaranteeing a very high sign up rate for tech-savvy and Internet connected PS3 users, although there will be content available to purchase, so it won’t all be free. 

Nintendo’s Wii is also set to offer an online service, one which encourages you to come back every day to experience something, as well as offering paid access to a vast back catalogue of online games for earlier versions of Nintendo games consoles, along with free games and content to experience as well.

The Wii will also feature a web browser, with any browser potentially allowing you to also watch streaming video content from sites like YouTube, as well as listen to streaming audio, making your console (or computer) just another channel on the screen or the radio dial, although to be accessed by a potentially much larger base of owners with a browser-enabled console attached to their TV than PC owners who choose to connect their PCs to their TV, although this is changing now too with the emerging popularity of Windows XP Media Centre edition and Vista with Media Centre as mentioned earlier.

The PSP has had the ability to access streaming content and play online games for some time now, while the Nintendo DS and DS Lite have also had access to online gaming through Wi-Fi connections for some time now also, although no web browser is natively built into either Nintendo DS model.

Microsoft is trying to taking the Xbox Live experience further by letting you access it through a computer as explained at a Daily Tech artile. Called Xbox Live Pipeline, initial feedback on this first version is that it’s only a shadow of the richness and depth of accessing Xbox Live through the Xbox 360 itself, but has clear potential to improve, which no doubt it will in relatively short order as everyone tries to outdo themselves online.

One thing’s for sure: everything is now connected, or soon will be. Accessing the online service you choose will eventually be possible from any connected device. For gamers this will come true in 2007. Microsoft spoke at a recent Australian preview of Windows Vista for journalists of acceis talking about see your gamer profile on your phone or connected PDA, where you can play phone or PDA based mini-games that upload your performance to an online area where the main game can download that to further your progress in your Xbox 360 or Vista game.

In the not-too distant future, every TV screen will have an online service behind it, whether through a digital set-top box, any computer (especially on with a TV tuner installed) or a games console, letting you make the choices between passive viewing or interactive entertainment where you vote or somehow take part, access the Internet, access your digital media jukebox (and add to it by recording or downloading content) or play games. What a change from the days when black and white TV ruled the roost, and to think, for all our advances – we’re still really only in the black and white era of technology, barely 50 years from the start of broadcast TV – at least, in Australia. I truly am glad that the best is still yet to come!


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.



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