I’ve been called an IPTV veteran, which makes me feel a bit outdated. People must unfortunately be right because the biggest surprise when I first arrived at the Social X event in London on Tuesday was how much younger people were, with trendier clothes and many more women than at your typical “veteran’s” IPTV event. (the X in Social X is for Media, TV, Mobile, Enterprise or anything else you fancy). Also, apart from a few Nokia-laden Scandinavians, non-iPhone users were very hard to spot. In fact it almost felt like an Apple convention, with dozens of MacBooks (all pros so there must be money in Social X for now) for maybe just 3 or 4 PC’s sighted in all.
I first spoke to TV Genius. In my initial daze about how different it felt, I was wondering what a content recommendation company was doing here (or maybe I’d got it wrong and was already at IPTV World Forum) until it dawned on me that the very first really powerful feature to come out of any social X network is … wait for it … recommendation. Well Social recommendation at least. Doh.
TV Genius is a 30-person company with a B2B model, offering search and recommendation services on sites like theGuardian.co.uk and in some IPTV deployments. I was surprised to hear that the extra content added around TV listing is still only more video content. I was expecting more OTT features like actors bios from Wikipedia or something. TV Genius told me that this is due to their clients’ requirements; their technology could apparently do it all. So far all implementations including the latest with Fetch TV have a walled-garden feel to them.
TV Genius, like its competitors, uses a mix of approaches and technologies. If full anonymity is required then you can only use an approach based on the content itself. TV Genius then use a map built from anonymous user activity. The lines and bubbles on the walls of their booth are meant to convey this map. Explicit profiles can be supported, but this seems less relevant in the TV space than on the web. Many of the technologies under the hood like collaborative filtering grew up with the Internet over a decade ago. I’d be running a bit scared if Amazon were to enter this market directly.
I popped into the Cloud Computing conference to get a flavour of what this new buzzword is all about. Just enter those three words into Google and you’ll see what I mean. Eachen Fletcher from Sporting Index gave one of those refreshing talks where he had nothing to sell, just experience to share.
Is this just a little step forward draped in oozes of hype or something real? Like with the whole social X thing the jury is also out on this one. But gosh, I feel even more of veteran in this IT environment. I remember back in the late eighties when object orientation was going to revolutionize IT. Sure it happened, but quietly, the hype just dissipated into the ether. At the same time HTML came to enable exciting web features then Java for the apps. When it turned out to be a mess of non-maintainable spaghetti code to get anything at all sophisticated up and running, XML came along with its style sheets to separate presentation from content. Around then Larry Ellison took on Microsoft with his net computer concept, and lost. The feeling I got is that cloud computing is another episode in this same drama. Much of Ellison’s vision may just have been off by a decade or so because the web wasn’t yet ubiquitous. If I were an IT manager in 2010 I’d have a team focussing on cloud computing, especially while it’s financially trendy to shift CAPEX to OPEX. That’s the biggest benefit of cloud computing, i.e. spending a lot less to start with even if the bill, 10 years on, ends up much bigger.
Back to Social X, Tom McDonnell is the man to talk to for some straight answers here. He started testing games while still at school in Liverpool. He looks young enough for that to have been yesterday so he must qualify. But after listening to him I do believe him that it was over decade ago. He’s a techie who has kept a customer-centric approach like the CTO of a content company or the CMO of a tech one.
He met up with the cofounder of his current company Monterosa while working on BBC’s ‘Test the nation’. They left in 2003 to build the web part of the program. Since then they have specialized in real-time elements to make the TV experience more enjoyable. I suppose that’s one of his definitions of Social TV (see Agit8or’s blog and comments for more or Tom’s own definition here).
When I questioned Tom about how hard Social TV is to implement in an open i.e. OTT environment, he lamented the absence of an open standard, albeit one that simply identifies shows uniquely.
McDonnell is sceptical about obscuring the main TV screen with anything widgety, especially when a good show is on. He points out that Social TV is usually personal even when it’s around a family TV show. For the time being Monterosa therefore sees Social TV as being a multi-screen experience so you can be uniquely identified and have some privacy.
Tom agreed with me that many platform operators will try to retain control through technology and that a conflict of interest could arise with TV stations. That’s why some big Telco TV operators are trying to do business directly with the production companies that own the big shows.
In the afternoon, the panel I chaired was on the challenges faced by existing TV platforms to embrace social TV. Actually, we only had Cable platforms around the table with lively speakers from UPC and Virgin so I tried to stand in a bit for the DSL crowd. The supplier NDS and the industry body GVF made up the rest of the panel.
Despite my insistence, it turns out that the tech challenges are quite hard to pinpoint. The Appstore ecosystem captured a lot of attention with questions and comments from the audience too. That at least does have a little technology issue to it, i.e. you need an application environment rather than just a web one. NDS pointed out another: we will not be able to build Social TV with Apple’s approach to third party apps. Full multitasking will be required so you never lose an instant of the live program even if there is a surge of tweets … Apart from that it does seem plain sailing from a technology standpoint.
I agree with Agit8ors comments on the surprising lack of Canvas talk at the conference. I tried baiting my NDS speaker with the fact that they are linked to Sky, a would-be Canvas-killer, but to no avail; he just smiled back politely.
I took the panel through one of the traditional crystal ball sessions. NDS sees non-content-aware widgets dying out this year. Recommendation and specifically social recommendation (i.e. recreating the water-cooler moment) is Virgin’s bet in the short term for mass-market adoption. GVF sees more user generated content pushing social X forwards whereas UPC will be happy if the Red-button just gets a bit sexier and Flash(ier) this year.
An interesting question came in from twitter on whether Social TV would remain market specific or if we’d see some international communities emerging. Nobody agreed on this one and UPC saw it as a non-issue as most programming is market specific; the Anglo-British Virgin Media unsurprisingly concurred. I pointed out that if Social X takes off significantly this could blur some boundaries and globalize the market a bit more. Writing this now I find it a depressing prospect.
I wonder if is significant that the only meeting I’d set-up in advance, with Sofanatics, a company that is a Social TV pure player, didn’t materialise because of missed tweets. Sofanatics create virtual rooms for fans to aggregate and cheer on their teams. I later found a tweet saying they had 26,000 visitors and 2000 registered users during their winter Olympics push for the hockey semi-final between Finland and the US. Visitors came from 92 countries. I caught up with Toni Laturi from the Finnish Company, who cheered me up on globalisation at least. He said, “What we learned is that the viewers really wanted to share their emotions and passion online. One guy even promised to pay his TV fee because of the service :). Expats were very involved, although that could also be due to the difficult times of the games in the middle of the night for most of us”. It looks like Sofanatics should share their data with UPC, who don’t see Social TV crossing borders.
I left this conference with new ideas. Firstly, I won’t let the hype around Social X hide the underlying paradigm shift from me anymore. I came to the conference from an IPTV perspective, narrow-mindedly expecting Social TV on the big screen. Well no longer. Tom McDonnel convinced me that, in 2010 at least, Social TV will be a multi-screen experience i.e. laptop or iPad on your knee or Smartphone in your hand. One of the conference speakers also pointed out that the TV hardware lifecycle just couldn’t match the required pace of change of bleeding-edge technology. Maybe that’s where my lingering doubt about the technology block comes from, because all the people I spoke to were adamant that technology isn’t the issue for social TV like it was for IPTV a few years ago.
My feeling like an old fart among all the youngsters was compounded by a sense of déjà-vu. Social X conferences in 2010 feel just like IPTV conferences did in 2005. Being part of a secret elite ‘in the know’. We gambled then that we were onto something big and even if IPTV still has a long way to go it looks like we were right. What a coincidence, Ian who runs the show, also started the IPTV World Series in 2005 and is one of the rare people to have made some money out of being right with IPTV. See ya next week to rant and hopefully rave a bit about that too.