Open.... was the trading name of Open Interactive Limited, which was a subsidiary of British Interactive Broadcasting. British Interactive Broadcasting was in turn owned by a consortium consisting of companies involving British Telecom, Matsushita and BSkyB. Launching a few months late in August 1999, it only survived until it was closed by BSkyB in October 2001, losing GB£116 million. The service was awarded a Design Council Millennium Product Award.
Open was marketed as the flagship Interactive TV service on the then newly launched Sky Digital platform in the UK. Open was originally designed to house all of Sky Digital's interactive functions under the one name and in the one place.
Open had a state of the art fully refurbished head office in Farringdon where its own content was designed and built. The offices also housed their service control room and the services proxy servers (for when users digiboxes dialled to download and upload data). Transmission took place at the then BT Teleport site in North London.
Services included Shopping, email, gaming, banking and information services like film guides or weather. The content was extensive and wide ranging, however it was a "walled garden" as users could not go on the Internet or on traditional web pages. All content was specifically designed for use on Open and was not available on any other platform.
During its short life, and despite Open processing 65 000 shopping transactions, it lost £116 million.
Access and availability
Access was available to all Sky Digital subscribers and could be accessed at anytime by pressing the "Interactive" button on customer's Sky Digital remote control.
Open.... was marketed as being available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the customer's convenience. However in reality, the service was unavailable for a number of minutes at quieter times (generally around 4 am each morning) when Open....'s proxy server software was being updated. This update mean that digiboxes could not connect online and left customers unable to make purchases or download weather forecasts etc...
Users could navigate through Open.... using either the number keys or via the four coloured buttons typically on their Sky Digital remote control. Other buttons which were used included the "back-up" button to go back a screen or the directional arrows also on their Sky Digital remote control.
All screens regardless of who provided the content, displayed the Open.... navigation banner. It was grey and semi-transparent and featured the four coloured buttons. The function of each coloured button varied, however the red button was always the "go to" menu. It allowed users to bookmark a particular screen, view their browsing history or "go back" a screen.
On entering the Open.... platform, users were presented with the Top Level Menu homepage. This consisted of 7 or 8 numbered options (typically: shopping, banking, information, email and how to use) and a quarter screen video featuring traditional TV advertising (of the features available through Open....). As users navigated through the various menus, they could eventually enter Open.... service provider portals such as WH Smith shop or Talk21 email.
Open.... was divided up into five main zones or areas, these included:
- Shopping - Banking - Information - Gaming - Personal
Retailers such as Woolworths or The Gadget Shop were able to provide a small shop presence through Open.... featuring their own branding, style and products. Typically because of the way Open.... worked, users had to connect and allow their digibox to go online normally at a local rate number to download product information and in all cases, make a purchase through Open....
Iceland were originally the flagship Interactive store but despite extensive advertising - never actually launched.
The three main banks to feature a presence on Open.... were HSBC (then Midland Bank), Halifax and The Woolwich. however HSBC were the only bank to actually provide a true online banking experience. Halifax and The Woolwich only provided information pages on their range of products and services.
Open.... provided various information screens such as weather forecasts, showbiz (through the "Hello" portal) as well as cinema listings and travel guides. Open.... also featured a Going Places travel agent outlook, but again this was just for information. No holidays could be purchased via Open....
Gaming was exceptionally popular with younger Open.... users. Games were generally available over the satellite transmission and as such did not require the user to go online to download game data (except when submitting high scores).
Original games included:
- Beehive Bedlam - Fathom - Big Top Drop - Sheep Dip - Marvin Mole - King Tutti - Bumble Tumble - Corporal Cluck
To date, Beehive Bedlam is the only game which is still available through the current Sky Games portal. Although viewers don't actually notice a different apart from the Sky Games branding - the game has been totally rebuilt from scratch since Open.... first launched.
Open.... provided (though BT) a Talk 21 email portal. Through the digiboxes online connection - users could register, send and receive email through the BT Talk 21 service.
All emails (regardless of encoding) were seen and sent as plain text. Attachments could not be read or attached. When the service was first launched, it was expected to use the @open-talk.co.uk domain, however as BT were a major shareholder, it was felt better to use the BT Talk 21 email brand.
Another Open.... service was the Open Organiser. It allowed users to create personal profiles and store their credit card details for use throughout the whole Open.... platform. Rather than have to type in your name, address and credit card number in every time you wanted to purchase something through Open...., you could opt to select your profile from the Organiser screen and use those stored details. The Organiser portal required an online connection at all times in order to work.
Technical (Taken from original Open.... website)
The Image The television images created by Open…. combine video, still images and animation to create an entertaining and captivating service. These media assets can be delivered by satellite, particularly for video and high quality images such as backgrounds which are accessed by many people; by telephone line, for text or pictures which change frequently or are specific to individual customers. Some assets such as frequently used logos may be stored temporarily in the STB.
Digital Television Digital television is a pre-requisite for interactive television. It allows video to be manipulated along with other images, still and animated, by providing processing power in an STB. The primary task of the STB is to reconstruct a digital data stream into moving pictures on the screen. This is slightly more difficult than it sounds because the pictures are compressed before being stored and transmitted.
International bodies have defined the MPEG standard used to compress video from around 140Mbit/s used in analogue television to between 2 and 6Mbit/s, by logically relating successive frames; i.e. a beachball bouncing across a beach is fairly simply represented by a ball moved fractionally across a static background. The STB's job is to do the calculations to reconstruct the picture in an MPEG decoder - a relatively simple matter in the case of the beachball, not so simple in the heat of a soccer match. The smaller bandwidth required by digital TV signals also explains its other attraction - more channels in the same bandwidth.
Interactive Television The concept of interactivity in television means very different things to different people. Strictly, Pay TV is "interactive" in that movies can be ordered by sending small messages from the STB. The concept adopted by Open.... is to provide the richest TV experience with as much data as possible being accessed over the on-line connection. This allows a full range of services such as shopping, banking, games and information.
The Set Top Box The Open.... concept of interactivity puts great demands on the STB. As well as the MPEG decoding required to show video, the richness of the Open.... service requires that the box can decode JPEGs (another internationally defined compression technique for still pictures) and audio sequences, and handle the communication protocols required by the on-line connection, as independently as possible to avoid glitching.
As a further refinement the Open.... STB uses three display layers, a background MPEG layer, a second video layer and an OSD or graphics layer used principally for overlay text. In essence the STB is a PC, without discs or keyboard, but with a number of other sophisticated peripherals contained in one small enclosure. In many ways an STB is identical to the Network Computers being used in managed business environments.
The power of the STB is achieved in a very cost effective manner using sophisticated software techniques. Typical boxes have the power of a high end 486 PC but with much less memory. There is no disc drive so the operating system is held in flash (electrically alterable) memory. Thus the operating system is always available when the STB is switched on, and it can be upgraded by satellite to add new features. The box always keeps a copy of the last working operating system in as a backup during to the upgrade process.
The Service Services are carried by satellite as an application which will run on the STB plus the associated high quality graphics which give the menus their look and feel. Using the high bandwidth available on the satellite, an application and its screens can be delivered as a repeating carousel only 2 seconds long. Each customer runs the application in their own STB, navigating in their own time in any way they wish. On average their STB will find the next screen from the satellite carousel in around a second. Additional information about products and services will be called from the on-line server using the telephone connection.
E-Mail All Open…. customers will be able to have their own e-mail address as will all members of their household. A simple user interface will allow short messages to be created or responded to using the remote control. Customers who make more use of the system may wish to use the optional cordless keyboard.
The Platform The services are created using a Service Creation Environment (SCE), a package of hardware and software incorporating Open TV's own authoring tool, OpenAuthor. Code is delivered to the Service Delivery platform where it is checked then split between the Broadcast Server for delivery to the satellite and the On-line Server.
Orders are placed on the On-line Server and credit card details checked using the Transaction Management System (TMS). In Standard Retail the orders are batched and transmitted to the retailers who subsequently advise when goods are shipped for TMS to debit credit card accounts.
The computers which power the platform are located in three principle sites; the broadcasting platform in BT Tower, the on-line platform in a central London location, and the commissioning and operational systems in Open…. House. The Open… uplink site is in Docklands and the customer management centre is in Livingston. The dial-in network is provided by BT and is the largest on-line network in the country; it will support 0.5m customers on Day 1 compared to the largest Internet Provider who currently has 184k customers.
On-line Security All code is encrypted before transmission and decoded using the CA (Conditional Access) controls in the STB, enabled by the code on the customer's Sky card. Calls to the On-line Server are validated using the Authentication Server and all data is encrypted.
Open.... faced many critics and criticisms, some of which are listed below:
1. Open was extremely slow compared with the Internet. When users transitioned between zones or service providers - they faced around a 30 second wait for the next application to download 2. Online connections - to send any data to Open...., users were required to allow their digiboxes to go online normally at a local or national rate phone number 3. Users could not watch Sky TV and use Open.... at the same time 4. Being a "walled garden" service providers had to lease a certain amount of capacity on the platform With this in mind, online shops normally featured an extremely limited selection of products. 5. A number of service providers were heavily advertised such as Iceland (food store) and E*Trade bank. However these providers never actually launched a service on the platform.
- Bell, Emily (7 May 2001). "Bang! The door slams shut on Open". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
- "Millennium Products". Design Council. Retrieved 5 June 2013.