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UAE incumbent goes OTT – IP&TV World Forum MENA report – Part 1/2 – Etisalat

This year’s IP&TV World Forum in Dubai was another show that could easily have been called the OTT forum – which begs the question of whether it’s worth going to the show with that title: as all the TV related gigs have gone over the top. In Dubai this year, most of the presentations during the conference and almost all the booths were full of it.

To learn what was talked about at the conference, check the #IPTVWFMEA hash tag on twitter or follow me @nebul2. My highlight was Thierry Fautier’s enthusiastic presentation of MPEG-DASH and my “”OMG what’s that?” moment arrived just before the close when we had an evangelical presentation from JOY LUXE IPTV in a gospel style on the 10 stupidest things not to do with apps. I was so amazed I stayed till the end, but don’t remember a single thing that was said.

However, overall the conference was of a good quality with variety and much local issues addressed. As last year, the MEA version of the show brings in a small, but a very focussed and powerful crowd with quite a lot of decision makers up to CEO level. Together with the genuine 5-star location, that lends a feeling of importance to the event. Decisions seem to take a long time in the Middle East and I heard it quipped that that was why the big guns had to come several times.

The exhibition floor

This year, I only stopped by in booths I haven’t visited before, leaving out for another time the likes of Motorola, Bridge or NDS that I have written about before. This first installment only covers Etisalat. Selevision, Mariner Partners Anevia and some others will be covered in part two.

The Etisalat booth took-up about a quarter the complete show floor space and it also housed small demo pods for a dozen key suppliers making up both its IPTV and its OTT ecosystem. These include suppliers large and small like Harmonic (encoding), SoftAtHome (middleware), Phxx (OTT solution developer), Airties (device manufacturer), Consona (OSS/BSS), Alfalak (Integrator), Pace (STB), etc.

I asked Jamal Bnari, one of the key project stakeholders to give me the guided tour of the Etisalat OTT demos.

Jamal first joked with me about how little IPTV there was at the show despite its name. The vast Etisalat booth echoed his feeling just like the rest of the show floor, with OTT occupying most of the space and pure-play IPTV relegated to only a few small booths.

Jamal explained to me that Etisalat’s new OTT services were initially planned as new commercial services to run alongside the existing IPTV service. The OnDemand service available on the web is actually the IPTV VOD library made available outside of the traditional IPTV suite (Live TV, Catch-up TV, etc.). The intent is to allow non-IPTV Etisalat subscribers to consume high-quality VOD content. Since this is still a managed network service (the service comes from the ISP), these customers are provisioned for IPTV but not allowed access to the other services in the IPTV except for VOD of course. This approach overcomes the usual QOS issue with OTT.

For Jamal, the business benefit is this – “OTT either adds real value (ARPU) to existing TV subs or perceived value (stickiness)”. It also enables Etisalat to upsell heavy broadband users towards the complete TV story including the core IPTV solution. There’s a parallel here with big DTH platforms that use VoD primarily as a recruitment tool with extra ARPU providing a nice secondary benefit.

The OTT eLife service called OnWeb is already commercially deployed in the UAE and available to subscribers of all ISPs. Of course, there’s no guaranteed QOS here.

We then whizzed through all the eLife OTT demos (eLife is the brand used for all new services delivered over fibre). Jamal was adamant that Etisalat is going to be selling services NOT devices with this new approach.

The goal is to have the same user Interface on all devices (simplified but not changed on smaller screens). We discussed whether a same navigation paradigm can actually work for devices as different as a smartphone and a 47” HD screen with a remote control. My feeling was that it’s more about capturing a similar user experience than providing an identical interface.

For all OTT services, customers must setup an account with a few required parameters. The same credentials and payment options are used for all devices. The account is then hosted in the cloud. For now one user equates to one account and multiple devices, which works fine for individual devices. But for family TVs some enhancements will be needed.

The demo of eLife OnWeb was being shown on several STBs, importantly, none with the Etisalat brand. Third parties, who choose to include eLife OnWeb with their STB services, provide the devices. On display at the show there was a Humax branded box, an Abu Dhabi media device (Broadcom, Linux), a Kaon branded Android box, a pure IP box from Humax, an AirTies box and an LG SmartBox/Upgrader to make dumb TVs smart (exclusive to Etisalat and not available in the retail markets in the UAE). If nothing else, that impressive line-up shows that integrating Etisalt’s OTT services can’t be all that difficult.

When you fire-up the service, you are presented with a Video Dashboard promoting: Featured, Most-popular, Most-recent and My-favourites.
The TVOD menu is sub-categorized with: Featured, Latest, Popular, Browse (alphabetical), Arabic, Genres (leading to a sub-menu of a whopping 13 genres) and a menu item labelled “Content-Provider”, which I’m guessing will confuse many a user. The Movies menu has the same basic layout as the TVoD one.

The final elements available through the user interface are an unclear concept of “Channels”, an “other videos” category and a confusing second “Movie” section separate from the main movies menu, begging the question of where I should look for movies. The final menu structure contains “Premium” packages and Pay-Per-View, which made me completely lose track of what to look for where.

So after getting off to a good start the demo’s menu structure left me a bit confused. On the upside, the Phxx people on the booth (Phxx are the software developers) said that the menu structure is easy to simplify. Also they told me that menus are created dynamically so if, say a film category contains no assets, the associated menu item will not be displayed. Maybe in the future the EPG/UI could become even more intelligent and merge genres - like Action & Adventure when the total in both genres was of user-friendly size.

The breadth of content and service ambition of Etisalat is huge. Restraining the scope will provide one easy key to simplification of user experience. As services start to rollout with real content for real users, I trust things will get simpler on their own, focussing on where real demand meets Etisalat’s ability to satisfy it with content.

After looking at all the OTT STBs, Jamal took me over to their range of tablet devices. Samsung Galaxy tabs were on display in 10” & 8” sizes with an almost pocketable 6” device from Huawei. All these tabs were of course running Android. The live demos used 3G for video streaming because the exhibition area was over-saturated with Wi-Fi traffic from most of the booths. The streaming worked impressively over 3G using both progressive download (PDL) and adaptive bitrate (ABR). But the 6” Huawei screen illustrated the limits of the one-size fits all approach to user interfaces. I didn’t have a magnifying glass with me so I couldn’t read any of the smaller text.

The iPad suffered the feared “demo-effect” crashing a few times before we could get under way. Because of iTunes licencing issues, the interface under iOS is different with a system of “buckets”. This content-provider-centric approach to the UI is extremely simple with a list of 12 content provides per page and three pages at launch. Categorization is also available with genres within each “bucket”.

The Connected TV demo showed a UI similar to the iOS one and used a 2-level menu structure. Jamal assured me that an upgrade is in the works to make this identical to the tablet and STB versions. Etisalat provide an LG Smartbox to upgrade non-connected TVs so they too can be smart.

The Web portal provides the same user experience as the Connected TV. This approach only makes sense for geeks that hook their PC up to their TV. Normal human beings lean forward while using a PC or Mac, and lean back in front of the TV, which requires a different paradigm. Jamal reassured me that the web portal will be replaced with a 'busier' version similar to today’s typical video aggregation site.

The smartphone demo was given on an LG Android device. The UI I saw was simplified to the extent that it contradicted the single UI mantra that Etisalat is trying to implement. But the Phxx guys told this part was still very much “work in progress”, so perhaps I’ll have to come back in a few months and look again.

Jamal told me that some devices are in the shops already and that the whole line-up of everything I saw should be commercially available by the end of the first quarter 2012. By then more devices like Xbox, Roku or Boxee will be announced.

Etisalat’s OTT initiative can only inspire awe and admiration for its breadth and depth of ambition. If they succeed, they will reinforce their service provider nature as the network gets commoditized. The confusion I saw in the UI demonstrates the need to make the strategy completely clear to implement something something a la Apple. The ecosystem they put together is made up of some of the most reputable and innovative suppliers in the market. As there are about nine of them, I can not help thinking of the saying that nine midwifes cannot deliver your baby in one month, However, I look forward to meeting this child as soon as mother and baby are ready.