Hands on with Zeebox, your new social TV guide

Since he left his role as the head of BBC’s iPlayer and its troubled sibling YouView, Anthony Rose has been working on a secret Internet TV startup known as tBoneTV — but only occasionally talking about what he was doing — building a social television guide called Zeebox.

Now the project is out in the open, and the Zeebox iPad app is live. (s aapl) So what’s it like — and what does it do? Here are my first impressions.

Getting started with Zeebox

You can think of Zeebox as a next-generation TV listings magazine. The app, which only works in the U.K. right now, is based around a simple interface — a list of programs that are on television right now.

The first step once you have downloaded it is to make sure you’re getting the right listings on-screen. In just a few seconds, I told Zeebox my cable provider, the area I live in, and it had what was on TV right then.

The next part of the process is to connect with your friends, logging in through Facebook and/or Twitter to see who else is using the app. Once that’s done, you can scroll through all your available channels and see who is watching what, or see which shows are currently most popular with Zeebox users.

Tapping on a show means you’re watching it — and takes you into a special program page that is packed with information. It has credits for the show itself, a stream of recent Twitter activity based on hashtags, links to apps and downloads related to the program and graphics that show you how popular the show is in real time.

Once you’re watching a show, other friends can see your avatar alongside it on their own listings page. If you see friends online watching a particular program, you can “join them” to indicate you’re watching the same show or start a chat about what it is you’re seeing. It’s swift and simple for the most part.

You’re not just limited to shows that are on right now, either; a quick swipe to the left or right lets you zip around the timeline to see what’s coming up or what you missed.

Here’s a program page for a repeat of the classic Batman TV series that happened to be showing while I was having a play around.

Next-gen remote control

But here’s the big trick that Zeebox has up its sleeve: You can also use it as a remote. That makes it not just a theoretical two-screen experience, but a real one. If you have a compatible internet television — specifically, one of dozens of models produced by Sony, (s sne) Samsung, Panasonic or LG — you can use Zeebox on your small screen to control what’s happening on your big screen.

That means when you click a show in the app, it flips the channel for you on your television. And if you decide to join a friend to watch a show in Zeebox, your TV will automatically change to the same station. My own television wasn’t compatible, but a friend on the other end of the line reported that it worked well.

Aside from that piece of magic, there are some neat little touches elsewhere, such as the progress bar on each graphic that tells you, in a subtle way, how long each show has left. It’s a well-built, smart and highly usable app.

Even so, however, success won’t be easy. There’s a ton of competition out there.

Services like Miso and GetGlue have built ways of “checking in” to TV programs, and over the last few months alone, we’ve covered the launch of similar services, including BuddyTV, Matcha.tv and Fav.tv. But I get the feeling that Zeebox is in as good a position as any of them, and maybe better: it’s far┬ámore useable and sleekly put together than most. And with Rose, it has a CTO who knows this stuff inside out. It reportedly has $5 million in funding too, which is useful.

What Zeebox could do better

Here are a few things Zeebox needs to do if it wants to rise above the crowd.

  • New countries. The biggest limitation, of course, is that it’s only serving British television. If Zeebox wants to make a real dent in the market, it’s going to have to crack other geographies as well. Apparently, it’s going to be branching out early next year — something that may be expensive, and may require strong connections with foreign TV providers. But it needs to happen.
  • More comprehensive channel lineups. Services like this live and die on the quality of their data. If I have access to a TV channel that isn’t on my Zeebox listing, then it’s useless. When looking with a friend, we noticed that there were a few problems with the EPG data. It was nothing major — outdated logos, for example — but it needs to be totally reliable to catch on.
  • TV on demand. We all know that a lot of viewing activity doesn’t happen alongside live TV. It would be interesting to see Zeebox hook into VOD content, or allow you to tell friends that you are watching a catch-up service. It breaks the TV listings model, but it’s where user activity is happening — especially among the sort of market who are likely to be using this app.
  • Program stacking. I can look at shows that have just finished, are on right now and are coming next, but I can’t remind myself to watch things that aren’t being shown right now. Nor can I set an alert to tell me whenever one of my friends starts watching one of my favorite shows. Features like that would combine to increase the social viewing experience.
  • Better notifications. As far as I could see, when a friend joins me to watch a program, there’s no real indication that I’ve got company. This means it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of all my friends swarming to watch a TV show with me. This could be improved. At the same time, the current hashtag feed from Twitter is interesting, but I’d like to be able to use it like a group chat among everyone who was watching with me — rather than the whole of Twitter.

Overall, it’s early days for Zeebox, and a lot could go wrong. But they have serious ambitions — the slogan is that it’s “the best thing to happen to TV since TV” — and a product that could match up to them.