Two years later, Virgin’s two-screen app takes TV wireless – via Ethernet

UK cable telco and TV operator Virgin Media has finally launched the mobile and tablet apps that give its subscribers control of their media center — two years after first promising to do so.

Virgin Media’s TV Anywhere app lets customers with iOS devices watch some live channels from their subscribed TV bundle on the go, remote-control their TiVo box while at home and manage their TiVo recordings when they’re not at home.

The touch-screen interface is a welcome and slick alternative controller for Virgin Media’s TiVo box, which — despite its massive 1Tb PVR disc, three tuners and a limited foray in to “apps” — is somewhat sluggishly controlled with its own standard [Peanut?]  peanut remote control.

But, while away from home, I could live-stream only around a dozen of the many channels that are part of my bundle. It is possible that channel carriage licenses still need to be worked out between Virgin Media and channel owners.

And, while Virgin Media subscribers can also get much of the functionality of TV Anywhere via a website from anywhere, a hairy hardware hurdle means some of the best at-home features, which are in the iOS app, are inaccessible.

To control TiVo from the app, customers’ cable broadband modem must be physically connected to their TiVo set top box, which has no Wi-Fi, via Ethernet. For customers like me, whose modem and box are in different rooms, that is a cabling nightmare, leaving Virgin Media to recommend they bridge the gap via electricity using Powerline adaptors.

This hiccup is by no means exclusive to Virgin Media. BSkyB is currently marketing its recently-released iOS controller app but it, too, requires a physical connection, Powerline bridge or WiFi dongle.

This was a big reason Virgin Media delayed the launch of its app for so long and, in a world where Apple’s AirPlay standard already lets viewers effortlessly “sling” video from a handheld device to a box, it is jarring.

But AirPlay is, indeed, Apple’s own standard and is virtually exclusive to its own Apple TV box. Now that non-Apple operators are debuting their own equivalent products, we are seeing wirelessness become a differentiator in the online TV stakes.

Right now, however, such features are hardly being clamoured for. For many consumers, content line-up will remain king, and that’s where a pay-TV outfit can still excel over a hardware maker.