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Sky TV Exercises Its Monopoly 17 December 2001 Edition
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Sky TV has a problem -- the new software they have downloaded on to the digital receivers used by hundreds of thousands of subscribers is crap.

Let me correct that. If Sky didn't have a virtual monopoly on digital pay-TV then they would have a problem -- but since they do have such a monopoly, the problem becomes the customers'.

Now if it was just me bitching at their software then I'd expect Sky to write off my comments as those of a crank -- but it's not just me is it?

No it's not. Check out these comments ("The so called upgrade" and "Sky Digital Upgrade?") posted in the nz.general newsgroup recently.

Clearly the recent changes have not gone down well with customers.

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The main issues are the incredible slowness of the electronic program guide (EPG) and the now sloth-like channel surfing capabilities now provided.

Those who are using Zenith-brand receivers also have to put up with occasional software crashes which require a complete "pull the plug" power-down to fix.

My box was updated last week and I have to say that the navigation ergonomics provided by the new code is just appalling and significantly reduces my level of satisfaction with the service.

Readers Say
(updated hourly)
  • Sky's new firmware... - James
  • Sky TV... - Ian
  • Sky Guide... - Michael
  • Sky Interactive... - Sam
  • Sky TV... - Blair
  • Sky TV Menu etc... - Neil
  • Sky Interactive... - Tony
  • Sky Digital... - Andy
  • Sky... - Richard
  • The new Menu System... - Cameron
  • Sky TV... - DeeDee
  • The upgrade... - Dylan
  • sky or any other tv... - Nick
  • Slow Sky... - Kane
  • SKY 'Upgrade'... - Jamie
  • SKY 'downgrade'... - Shelby
  • Sky Set-Top Boxes... - Vik
  • Sky TV... - Paul
  • Sky Digital... - Andrew
  • Have Your Say

    Ringing Sky's regular support lines to complain seems to be an utter waste of time -- they're clogged and some readers have reported waiting in excess of 25 minutes before their call was answered. Even if you have the patience of Job, you will, according to some readers, likely find yourself fobbed off with lame suggestions or excuses such as "it's slow because we're still downloading the update to other receivers" or "perhaps you're not pointing your remote directly at the receiver."

    To get to the bottom of this fiasco, I thought I'd talk to someone who ought to know what was going on -- so I rang Terry O'Brien, SkyTV's Director of Communications (AKA, their spinmeister).

    I asked Terry whether there had been complaints about the new software -- and he admitted that some people had commented on the slowness and some bugs had been reported -- but quickly added that they'd received lots of calls from people who were happy at the extra functionality the new system offers. (Lots??)

    Terry went on to say that they were continuing to work on the software and "we hope improvements will become apparent." He assured me that there would be changes that would address the speed issue -- but other information I've received indicates that his faith may be sorely misplaced.

    Just why is the new software so slow, erratic and unreliable?

    Well a report published in the Coop's Technology Digest claims: "The OpenTV software most recently tested by Sky NZ appears to have been written for a new generation of set-top box which is not yet available in quantity in New Zealand. The existing set-tops have difficulty running the OpenTV software because they don't have sufficient RAM or processing speed capabilities"

    If these claims are correct, Sky TV are in effect, attempting the equivalent of running Windows XP on a 33Mhz Intel 386 with 16MB of RAM. It might just work -- but it's not going to be practical or fun to use.

    However, Terry assured me that when Sky chose the specs for their decoders, they made sure that they had enough capacity to cope with future requirements. Do I believe him? Well maybe they did -- but since we all know about Moore's law, I doubt that *any* decoder sold two years ago has even half the processing power of units made today.

    I asked Terry whether it would be possible to "downgrade" to the original programme guide software -- since many people have said they'd rather have the old version. Sorry -- the answer is no -- you'll have the new features and sloth-like performance that comes with them whether you like it or not.

    When I suggested that, thanks to a lack of competition in most areas, Sky had no need to respond to customer complaints I was told that sky is "always reactive to customer concerns" -- but that they were "not selling the service for its usability."

    When I told Terry that I'd received over 50 emails from readers who had all complained about the new software, his response was "not bad out of 200,000" -- as if to suggest that there were some 199,950 satisfied customers.

    I acknowledged that perhaps Aardvark's readers were more aware of what computers could do and less tolerant of slow software -- but then, over the weekend, I contacted as many people as I could who are not computer-literate to get their opinions. Without exception they all complained about the new system and said they'd rather have the old one back.

    So exactly why has Sky TV chosen to risk the wrath of their customers by thrusting an ill-designed, badly implemented and ergonomically disastrous upgrade on them?

    Well it's quite simple -- they presently can't make a profit out of pure Pay TV so they're trying to beef up their offering with other chargeable services such as email and games.

    Yes, for the benefit of those who don't have Sky Digital, the new software has added several games to the system. But don't get excited -- they games are 1980's standard -- the type of thing you would have found on a very primitive personal computer such as the Sinclair Spectrum.

    Due to the lack of processor power, the "arcade style" games run at a snail's pace and sent a 14-year-old I showed them to into fits of laughter. "You've got to be kidding" I was told "that's not a game -- it's a joke." And I have to agree. For the benefit of those who don't have Sky Digital, check out this video capture (250K Realmedia file) of one of the Sky games. Note the lack of game-play, simplistic animation, and, believe it or not, this is full-speed -- as fast as it goes!

    But guess what -- Sky expects that people will pay an extra $60 per year to be able to access these crude, unplayable 20-year-old games on their TV sets.

    Then there's Sky Email -- which isn't up and running yet -- but it will supposedly allow subscribers to send and receive email through their TV. Unfortunately, I strongly suspect that the inordinately slow processing capabilities of the under-spec'd receivers will make typing an email a complete nightmare -- certainly not something many sane people would pay money for. Terry informs me that the email service won't support attachments either -- so if granny really wants to see that JPEG image of her newborn grandson in the UK, she'll have to get a real email account anyway.

    Sorry Sky -- NZ's homes have a very high penetration of PCs and games consoles. If I want to play games I'll plug in my Playstation or load a game on my PC -- I won't pay $60 a year to flatten the batteries in my remote and pull my hair out as a lame, poorly animated rabbit limps across the screen.

    I'd much rather see the meagre processor and RAM in the Pace and Zenith receivers not being squandered on crappy games and lame email options. Don't Sky know that the primary function of the remote and the EPG is to make it easier for you to watch the damned programmes being broadcast???

    And, if I want to send/receive email, I'll use my PC and a regular ISP so that I can also surf the Web and receive/send attachments -- while possibly even watching TV at the same time (something you can't do with Sky's offering).

    Sky has forgotten that people are paying it a hefty monthly subscription to watch good quality TV programmes -- and that we, the customers, just want to be able to flick channels quickly and check out what's on without waiting an age for the software to respond to our keypresses. If the money spent on that new EPG and lame games had instead been applied to freshening up the movie channel's content I think they would have pleased a lot more customers.

    I also feel sorry for the operators of the Sundance Channel. I (and I'm sure plenty of others) used to occasionally spot enough good stuff on that channel while flicking up through the rest to justify the extra cost of subscription. However, the fact you can no longer quickly flick sequentially through the channels means I'll probably dump my Sundance subscription because I'm now unlikely to stumble on its little gems again.

    Here are my predictions:

    • I suspect that, despite weak promises, Sky won't fix the speed problem -- simply because they can't -- the hardware just isn't capable of doing what the new software demands of it.

    • I suspect that Sky will continue to ignore the complaints of customers -- because they know that the vast majority of them have no other Pay TV options available to them. Aren't virtual monopolies wonderful things?

    • I suspect that Sky will also be woefully disappointed at the revenues its lame-games produce and at the huge support burden/costs they'll face when they launch their email service.

    It is indeed a great shame that TVNZ wasn't allowed to launch a competing digital service -- it might have forced Sky to listen to its customers rather than simply dictating to them.

    Let's just hope that now I've given this an airing, the mainstream media will pick up on it and alert Sky shareholders to the huge groundswell of discontent that the new software has created amongst customers.

    If you've got something to add to my, or those readers' comments already published today, please have your say -- don't forget to select "For Publication" if you want me to publish your message.

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