Interview: Sky TV's Brian Lenz
5th May 2011 | 09:30
From companion apps to UK's 3D leadership
UK tech leadership
Sky is indisputably responsible for bringing some of the most familiar and exciting technologies to our living room - with products like Sky+ becoming the byword for PVRs, more than 50 HD channels and with Sky 3D the first channel of its kind in Europe.
Bringing innovation to not only our set top boxes but also to our iPads, iPhones and Android devices is the remit of Brian Lenz, director of product development at Sky.
Lenz is a committed technophile – waxing lyrical during our interview about the pressure of making each new addition to the service accessible for the mass market and why he thinks companion devices are key to the future of television.
And, as an American in a high profile British company, he offers an interesting take on the UK tech world.
"I would say that there is untapped potential in the UK and I am increasingly impressed," Lenz states.
"Ten years ago the UK was not in a position to lead, but more recently things like ARM and what is coming out of Cambridge are doing just that, and there are an increasing number of times where we look at innovation that there are British alternatives to consider rather than automatically looking to Asia or Silicon Valley."
"I think the vibrancy of this market is incredible compared to a lot of places."
Lenz believes that a central part of ensuring that the British tech market continues to grow and establish itself towards the top of the global pecking order is education, and not driving our kids away from science and engineering into the lucrative worlds of finance and banking.
"Just like in the US, the UK needs more and more people to know how to problem solve and think technically, to question 'how do I build this?'," he adds
"I hope that the best and brightest are not just going into legal and finance; if I had a personal thing I would say too many smart people going into finance in both the US and Britain.
Lenz thinks that as a new generation grows up in a world where the likes of Steve Jobs are familiar figures, there's a smartphone in every pocket and a latop or tablet in every rucksack, the draw of working in technology is improving.
"I have seen a change of mentality now due to companies like Sky, ARM and Apple in the US," he says.
"People have seen [technology] is an exciting thing to do; something where you can genuinely game change. I feel far more optimistic."
Lenz believes that the British television industry has been a model for innovation and technological advance – and that 3D has been an example of the UK taking the lead on a global level.
"The vibrancy in [the television] sector has always been there and has been for 15 years," he says. "I think Sky can take a lot of credit for that, in getting into a staid market and proving that if you let business go after things you can make a success.
"That's happened in our segment and everything is so much more vibrant as a result.
"10 years ago, we might have judged success in Britain by being the first European nation to do something that has happened in the US, but now, a decade later, with something like 3D the UK has led the world.
"That's not just Sky, but the entire UK media industry leading the world because of the acceptance, adoption, the notion and the interest.
"That shows the receptiveness and forward thinking nature of the UK - and not just in our segment."
Lenz confesses that there are difficulties in trying to be an innovator when you deal with the mass market.
"We are willing to innovate and that does bring pressure," says Lenz. "The longer we go on bringing innovative products to market the more challenging it is, because simplicity is complex in this world.
"We know that we do something we are taking it out to a huge number of people; our smallest group is with our Sky+ HD consumers and they number 3.5 million, so anything we do will touch a lot of people."
Smart TV versus companion devices
One major are of growth at the moment is the arrival of Smart or connected TV services – but Lenz insists that Sky's policy of looking to companion devices, phones or tablets for example, is the right one.
"We have the view that the companion device is the far more powerful place to bring advanced functionality," Lenz says."If you look at connected TV services the apps and widgets they put on are things like Facebook and Twitter.
"They are up there for various reasons but the main thing that they are trying to offer is access to content, they are trying to create a content distribution business.The facts are that we already have it, and it's called Sky TV.
"Throwing other apps in is fine, but the only thing making it worthwhile is getting to content," he continues
"The real question of something like those apps is 'are they putting them up just to have lots of things to say and is it cluttering TV viewing?'
"Or are you much better of with something like an iPad where I can do whatever I want while watching TV and the TV still has its pristine big image?
"I can barely get my kids to tolerate me looking at the guide, so the interesting question is are there enough reasons where you can use these apps unobtrusively."
For these reasons, Lenz has been focused on bringing applications that allow functionality alongside the television rather than on it.
"Right now we are very excited at what we are doing with the companion device with things like the Sky+ app or Sky News Insider," he continues
"We've spent a lot of time in interactive, and we have learned a lot of things. It's not that interactivity isn't valued to a degree, it's just not the primary use case – which is obviously watching television.
"There's a lot of talk about convergence, and I think we all thought that it would be on what screen, but what we are finding in the service provider world is that we can offer a convergence of service across whichever device is appropriate at that time, be it mobile, computer or television.
"I also think that our work on the companion device gives us the chance to experiment.
"Our smallest user base if for Sky+ HD and that's 3.5 million people so if we get something wrong there for 80 per cent of our user base then we have 3 million pissed off people!
"In the app space you can experiment and we can see if the things that work for us there can be put onto the television in an unobtrusive way that will really enhance the experience."