Via Jack Yan's excellent Persuader Blog, news of a patent application filed by Philips which would prevent television viewers either changing channel during commercial breaks, or fast-forwarding through the adverts when watching recorded shows. From Barry Fox's 'Invention' column on the New Scientist website:
"The secret... is to take advantage of Multimedia Home Platform - the technology behind interactive television in many countries around the world. MHP software now comes built into most modern digital TV receivers and recorders. It looks for digital flags buried in a broadcast, and displays messages on screen that let the viewer call up extra features, such as additional footage or information about a programme.
Philips suggests adding flags to commercial breaks to stop a viewer from changing channels until the adverts are over. The flags could also be recognised by digital video recorders, which would then disable the fast forward control while the ads are playing."
Now this really is a pretty daft proposition, at least as the consumer electronics market is now: Philips does not have a near-monopoly (unlike the companies behind 'trusted' computing) nor is there legislation to force new devices to use this technology (though who knows what's over the horizon?).
So, the only consumers who buy a product with this technology are going to be those tricked into doing so by the 'feature' not being pointed out at time of sale.
As Cory Doctorow has often put it, "No-one woke up this morning wanting to do less with his/her property"; as such, I don't know why any consumer would want to buy a Philips TV system incorporating this technology. It offers no benefits to the consumer at all.
How did this come about?
Jack Yan notes:
"Philips is essentially patenting a technology that will be resented by people (it admits as much)—which could also damage its brand. I always heard that the folks at Philips there in the Netherlands were more technically oriented than consumer oriented, and this shows so very clearly with this invention. I’m just surprised that a consumer products’ company would actually set out to create something people would hate, in this day and age."
This touches on something that's been raised again and again by the 'architecture of control' examples I've looked at on this site: who is it that drives the design and development of such restrictive technology? Is it the designers themselves, or management? (Some discussion in my article for Engineering Designer).
Most product designers are at least trained to try to improve the consumer's experience with a product rather than detract from it. Whether submergence in a big corporate culture changes that, I don't know: I've only ever worked for small companies.
Chris Weightman, an industrial designer at London consultancy Tangerine [great company - I can say that now I've worked there!] believes that outside of the companies that have gone strategically (and perhaps philosophically) down the DRM and restriction route, designers will generally tend to focus on making the product experience more attractive to the user, with easier interactions a goal of many briefs. This tends to work against many architectures of control: indeed, there may well be a commercial advantage to being ‘second’ in the market (a ‘me-too’ product) but offering a simpler, more open product:
“The only distinctive selling point of some companies’ products—particularly in the portable music player market—is that they allow the user to get round the restrictive architecture of the market leaders. If design can build on that distinctiveness by making the product appealing in other ways as well, then second place could well become first place.”
Among designers, Philips seems to be regarded as a pretty desirable place to work, perhaps because of the "more technically oriented than consumer oriented" approach that Jack mentions; again, I don't know. Of course there can be a conflict of approaches within a company between 'technology-push' design and 'market-pull' design, but most competent design teams are aware of the interplay of these forces and attempt to use them to their advantage in adding value whilst creating a competitive edge.
Jack's point that Philips' brand may be damaged (together with some of the comments on his post) by this kind of behaviour is well-made: there is a risk that if consumers see Philips as a restrictive - authoritarian even - master, they'll turn to companies perceived to have consumers' freedoms more at heart, whether explicitly or just through the lack of such restrictive 'features' on their products.
Of course, Philips intends to build in a way round the restriction:
21. The method as claimed in claim 19 further comprising the steps of: providing a third Multimedia Home Platform application in said advertisement control software; and causing said third Multimedia Home Platform application to send a payment authorization from said viewer to a program broadcaster to authorize said viewer to one of: switch channels during a display of an advertisement in a broadcast video program and fast forward a recorded video program during a display of an advertisement in said recorded video program.
Yes, that's right: you can pay a subscription to allow you to use your TV as you want to!
Can't stop you pulling the plug every time there's an ad break though, can they?
Now, I should add that Philips has sent this response to some sites which have reported this news, such as Engadget:
"Royal Philips Electronics, ever mindful of their Engadget-reading customers, had this to say in a note to us: "(Philips) filed a patent application, as yet not granted, that enables watching a television movie without advertising. However, some people do want to see the ads. So, we developed a system where the viewer can choose, at the beginning of a movie, to either watch the movie without ads, or watch the movie with ads. It is up to the viewer to take this decision, and up to the broadcaster to offer the various services. Philips never had the intention to force viewers to watch ads against their will and does not use this technology in any current Philips products, nor do we have any plans to do so."
So why is the "force viewer to pay to skip the ads" feature listed as a claim in the patent application?