Commentary: YouTube Leanback is a Big Step Forward

I've been checking out YouTube's beta Leanback, which is attempting to provide an interface to YouTube that can be operated through basic cursor and enter key interactions. Fundamentally, this is a key step to enabling TV remote control interfacing so that the direction buttons on a simple infrared remote can be set up to emulate the cursor and defined key presses of a keyboard, and by doing so allow YouTube to be controlled from an armchair.

Many years back I was involved in developing an IP set-top box, and this interfacing was a challenge, since refining the user interface to work with generic web pages was always tricky: getting the left button to actually advance a track from a generic web page with a media player embedded was at best a complex task (at worst, an impossible one).

By producing Leanback, Google/YouTube has in my mind (regardless of whether or not they have in their own) provided at least one complete workflow for the hobbyist to produce, publish, and access their content to a TV set without having to develop code or use any premium products. YouTube has more than enough critical mass in its market adoption to ensure that any set-top box manufacturer will realise that a small coding job to marry the remote control UI with the application interface will provide arm-chair control of YouTube on the TV. If I was producing a set-top box today, I would be immediately modify it to at least provide the YouTube Leanback option, since the coding is probably nominal but the net effect of including it is to simplify access to the largest video library in the world.

Canvas, HbbTV, and some of the other standardisation processes are attempting to harmonise set-top boxes, content management systems, publishing formats, standards, and logging for over-the-top (OTT) publishing. While these standards are obviously reach far beyond YouTube's needs, Leanback does rather steal a space in the living room for Google, since now a generic remote control and a TV out are all you need to turn your PC into your living room set-top box.

While in time I am sure this YouTube API will reveal many limitations, my initial play with it was very interesting, and I felt that it was long overdue. It takes me back to TVXML. I think TVXML and some of the systems such as MiniWeb will welcome this move. Despite the slow uptake of domestic internet-to-TV "bridges" or set-top boxes, a "YouTube Box" is now surely only a short cycle away. Yes, I'd agree with cynics who say "it wont replace TV," at least in the immediate future. But just as VoIP took over from PSTN, and as email took over from fax (and a variety of other media transfer systems) the longevity of interoperable standards-based technologies is always a much surer bet than the permanence of legacy autonomous technologies.

The simple move of making the worlds most active, popular, and largest video service interactive through a remote control opens a new march on that most difficult stage in the link: not the last mile, or the last 10 meters, but the 15 feet AFTER the links have ended-the couch. 

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