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9 new trends to help my visit the TV Connect 2013 show floor

Many of us whinged and whined about the name change from IPTV World Forum to IP&TV World Forum because the names were too difficult to tell apart (if you are still looking, it was the adding of the ‘&’ in IP&TV). By naming the event TV Connect the organizers have now moved away far enough for the new name to stick. Now though it must be differentiated from the “Connected TV” events.

This year’s event is too big to just simply attend. I put on my thinking hat to ponder where things are going over the next three years, in order to decide who and what to see in Olympia. The trends below are new impressions of things I’m just beginning to understand, not the obvious ones like drowning in content.

For each trend I’ve suggested, in this blue font, which exhibitor I’ll be looking to see at the show. Please add a comment if you think I’ve missed something important, which of course I have.

Trend 1: Moore’s law looks like slowing down at last

My 2-year old gaming PC still plays all the latest games! Who’d have imagined, Apple still selling iPhone 4’s from its website three years after initial release?

At the same time, if the advantages of Broadband up to a “good DSL” speed  (i.e. from ~10MBPS) seems obvious, many operators are struggling to sell “fibre” speeds (from ~100MPS and above) unless there’s no price increase.

Raw processing power is no longer enough in the TMT sector to reach the mass market beyond geeks & early-adopters, and soon raw bandwidth won’t be enough either. Services must serve a deeper purpose. Ok, how can that be done?

At TV Connect I'll be looking how the numerous device makers (just for the letter A there are already: Amino, Airties, ABox42, …) have improved the packaging and User eXperience of their products without necessarily changing all that much under the hood since last year.

Trend 2: Analytics everywhere

Big Data is a trendy topic currently at the height of its Hype cycle, which also represents a genuinely new approach. After over a decade of promises, the ability to ingest richer data and process it near to real time is finally here. At last, operators can focus on user experience rather than just connectivity.

I’ll try to scratch under the surface of the “Big Data” words I expect to see plaster onto many booths.

Trend 3: Colliding segments of QoE, UX and Security

The User eXperience (UX) domaine has only naturally linked with Quality of Experience/Service and monitoring. So I’ll be looking for how the QoS/QoE/Monitoring vendors are embracing overall User eXperience. I’ve written earlier about security companies as potential candidates for a stake in this new game, as they know exactly what is being watched by whom when it comes to premium content. In the age of abundance we have entered, a key challenge is content navigation that also means UI design, search and recommendation.

I suppose VO and Nagra come to mind first as having merged much of this, but I'll also be checking in no particular order: Witbe, Veveo, Verimatrix, Conax, Red Bee, Mariner, Jinni, Ineoquest, Genius Digital, Agama,  …

Trend 4: CDNs going local and the Cloud coming to a TV near you

Other areas where there seems to still be some low-hanging fruit to improve User eXperience include the distribution of heavy (HD) content in networks. All operators with a fixed line network are racing to bring out their own CDNs.

Broadpeak seems to be the only CDN specialist

Some Cloud services like Dropbox or Network PVRs seem obvious. The jury is still out on others as the early disappointment of Connected TV has shown. OTT service delivery platforms (SDPs) will be another thing to look out for.

In the fog we’re all stumbling around in, I’ll try to see which of the one-stop-shops like Kit Digital, Siemens, Cisco, Ericsson or Nagra have the more powerful fog lights. Of course for a best-of-breed approach you’ll need to stop by at almost all the booths.

Trend 5: declining long-term value of Pay TV?

In the early 90s nothing worked better in the home than the fixed-line telephone. The availability and reliability of basic telephone services, whether mobile or fixed has significantly dropped twenty years later. Subscribers have been happy to trade lower prices and mobility for reliability and what we used to call quality. A similar trend can be seen with pay TV services. Early “cord-cutters” are showing that trade-offs are possible here too. Subscribers will probably trade old-fashioned TV quality for better variety, lower prices and better content navigation.

To keep the value in TV, some operators will use bundling or mashing-up TV types of service with social media and communication services.

The companies I’d talk to, to get a handle on this would be those at the forefront of social media like Accedo, or already close to operator’s triple play like SoftAtHome.

Trend 6: device wars growing fiercer

In what my friend Sebastian Becker calls a new rendition of “The Empire Strikes Back”, many European Cablecos have launched powerful boxes that have little to envy from a PC’s spec sheet, as for example with Numericable's LaBox. At the same time, Google is still happily ploughing millions into various device-centric Google TV projects, and Sony says the PS4 will revolutionize media in the living room. Nobody understands what Microsoft is saying: new OTT devices still crop up in shops ranging from powerful all-in-one boxes to tiny USB or HDMI sticks, … and the list goes on.

So short term, should I need to advise any operators on device architecture, I’ll go for being agnostic.

To get some clarity on this I’d drop in to the OIPF booth to see how standards are helping.

Trend 7: SD à HD à 4K

I saw Sony’s 4K screen at IBC and am a true geek on this one. The 4K industry drive will succeed because it just feels so right in the gut, where 3D with spectacles in the living room never could. 4K or ultra-HD will start to impact on us within three years.

I’ll be keen to see who at the show is already on the ball with 4K, although it’ll be harder to get the timing right on this than just be the fist too early mover.

Trend 8: Capex can really shrink at last

I have written over a dozen business cases for TV rollouts around the world and if you’re small, the killer Capex item is the head-end but if you’re large, it’s the STB.

For the former, new centralized digital “headend in the SKY” services substantial Capex savings. You just send files to be encoded streamed or whatever your head-end requirements are.

As for the larger operators, the STB can still be a killer cost as are fancy devices like the LGI Horizon box. People are actually happy though to spend hundreds of dollars on devices that are even more powerful than any STB. Once the empire has finished striking back, I sense a trend for overall lowering of STB costs.

I’ll drop by the usual suspects here for an update on head ends (Elemental, Envivio, Harmonic, Ateme, etc.) but also try to understand where Avail TVN is at.

Trend 9: Hello TV, Goodbye TV

If the 8 previous trends have a dose of gut feeling, this one - pure conjecture - feels right. I have come to realize that many of us work in the market sector we call TMT. Before I looked it up, I assumed that one of the T’s was for TV. Maybe I’m spending Too Much Time on this, but the acronym actually stands for Technology, Media and Telecoms, no TV anywhere.

So could TV have been just a passing thing? Before IPTV there wasn’t any TV on IP networks, and now in the age of multiscreen galore and OTT, is “TV” already being pushed back out of IP networks in favour of just “video”? Maybe one day there’ll just be Sports, News and Video left so beyond the three year time-frame of this blog we can all come back to the 2017 event which will be rebranded the SNV World Forum.

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The Big Data emperor will need Big Change within companies, that is if he has any clothes on. Summit report Part III

There was a great turnout to TM Forum’s inaugural event on Big Data in January. It was small enough to enable proper networking, but the packed room made it feels like this something more than just hype or buzz is happening around Big Data.

Some of the clear benefits Big Data brings at once

A key benefit EBay has gotten out of Big Data analytics after having started with Hadoop in 2010 is a greater flexibility. An example of what they can do better now is to work out how much to bid on specific keywords like “iPad” because the decision often has to be made in near real-time. Big Data helps eBay manage they key differences in word meaning from market to market.

Bell Canada was one of the more upbeat operators on Big Data. James Gazzola made a case for Advertising Forensics where the operator could use analytics to determine which ads are actually watched. Bell hopes that these insights, once mastered could be monetized. Gazzola went on to point out that as Bell Canada serves 66% of Canadians, analytics could show what's happening in all of Canada. That sent a slight shiver down my back as I wondered if the journey from network planning to user analytics actually terminated at a station called to Big Brother, but oops this is the part on benefits. So back to more down to earth issues, Gazzola told the audience that voice traffic used to be relatively predictable, but that data traffic driven by smartphones is anything but. Big Data is what Bell is looking at to help planning future network capacities.

Google’s presentation was disappointing. I don’t really blame Google speakers because the expectations are always unrealistically high: there’s so much we crave to know about Google. Matt McNeil, from Google’s Enterprise division was asked if they have any big Telco clients for Big Data yet. His wooden answer that "we're talking to several" showed the limits of the company’s transparency policy. But during his sales pitch, Matt got quite excited explaining that “it'll cost you 5M$ to build the capacity Google charges just 500$ per hour, for a Hadoop-powered Big Data analysis platform”. When McNeil showed off with http://bigquery.cloud.google.com, the exciting fact that “Led Zeppelin” is more controversial than “Hitler” got me a bit concerned that maybe all this Big Data stuff really was hype after all. I suppose we need practice finding more telling examples because as Matt did say himself “this year will be a trough of disillusionment for Big Data”.

Big Data is about Big change

Peter Crayfourd who recently left Orange, pointed out that becoming truly customer-centric can be scary. Such an approach may uncover many unhappy customers. But becoming truly customer-centric will take at least 5 years. All speakers at the Big Data conference seemed in agreement that user centric KPIs based on averages are to be shunned because users are so very unique! That sounds fine in theory but CFO’s are going to need to stay up late finding out how to live without the concept of ARPU.

The eye-opening presentation from Belgacom's Emmanuel Van Tomme stayed on the customer-centricity able but made the clearest case so far that change management is key to Big Data implementation. Emmanuel was the first Telco guy I’ve heard talk about a great new metric called VAP or Very Annoyed People. They can now be identified with Big Data analytics.

Many speakers converged on the theme of "change management" as THE key challenge for Big Data going forward. The general message was that if Hadoop is ready to deliver, people and even less their organizations were not yet.

Thinking of the bigger Telcos conjures up an image of oil tankers trying to steer away from network metrics towards usage metrics. Looking solely at the agility dimension I couldn’t help wondering if they could survive the speedboats like Amazon or Google.

As the conference was wrapping up I gleaned an interesting metric: subscribers are 51% more willing to share their data if they have the control of whether or not to share it in the first place! It’s one of those Doh!-I-knew-that statistics you feel you should have come up with, but didn’t.

Earlier it had been pointed out during one of the panel sessions that to make Big Data work for Telcos, subscribers must entrust ALL their data to the operator. For them to agree to this, the outbound sales & marketing link must be cut. It’s probably wiser to have one unhappy head of sales than many unhappy customers.

But things aren’t so simple

The limitations of KPIs

Peter Crayfourd illustrated the danger of KPIs with the voice continuity metric. In his example it was 96% when calculated over 15 minutes, so if that’s what your tracking all is hunky dory.  But in the same network environment, when the same metric is calculated over 45 days the result is usually 0%. Crayfourd went on to explain how averages can be dangerous within an organization: someone with their head in the oven feet in freezer has good average temp! Matt Olson from US operator Century Link pointed out that in the User eXperience (UX) domain simple maths just don't work: UX isn't the sum of the parts but some more complex function thereof.

Listening to the UX focussed presentations one got the feeling that the Big Data story might just be a pretext for some new guys to come steal the carpet from under the feet of the QoE market stakeholders. They’ve been saying this for almost a decade … Big Data is a means not an end.

Cost of Big Data & Hadoop.

For EBay, Hadoop may be cheaper to setup, but it’s so much less efficient to run than structured data that the TCO currently seems the same as with other enterprise solutions.

Google, eBay and even Microsoft made compelling presentations about the nuts and bolts of Big Data and then tried to resell their capabilities to the service providers in the room. TM Forum could have been a bot more ambitious and tried to get more head-on strategic discussions going on how the big pure-play OTT giants are actually eating Telco and other Service provider’s lunch. Maybe a lively debate to setup in Cannes?

Does the Emperor have any clothes on?

UK hosting company MEMSET's Kate Craig-Wood isn’t sure at all. Kate said that Big Data techniques are only needed in a very few cases where many hundreds of terabytes are involved and near real-time results are required. She does concede that the concepts born from Big Data are useful for all.

MEMSET’s co-founder went on to explain how a simple open source SQL based DBMS called SQlite successfully delivered interesting analysis on hundreds of Billions of data points, where MySQL had fallen over. She had to simplify and reorganize data and importing it took 4 days, but once that was done she got her query answered in minutes. Ms Craig-Wood went on to say that the SQL community is working flat out to solve scalability issues going as far as saying "I'd put my money on SQL evolving to solve most of the Big Data problems". There's so much SQL expertise out there!

Perhaps the most controversial part of this refreshing Big Data debunking session from Kate Craig-Wood of MEMSET was when she said that “I don't believe in data scientists, most DevOps will do fine, and Hadoop isn't that complex anyway”. She has a point: we're at the pinnacle of the hype cycle.

Caution

Less extreme but still on the side of caution were the sensible questions from Telefonica that is experimenting with Big Data. The Spanish operator is still cautious about the “high entrance cost” and uncertain final price tag or TCO. So far the Telco has built both a centralized cloud instance of its platform and also separate instances for each of its operating companies in different markets. Telefonica’s Daniel Rodriguez Sierra gave an amusing definition of Big Data as simply those queries we can't handle with current technology.

Verizon wireless also reaffirmed the need for caution pointing out that to implement Big Data and reap any benefit thereof you need an agile trial and error approach. That’s a tall order for any incumbent Telco. The US mobile operator admitted that it was being wooed by the likes of Google, Amazon and EBay that would all love to resell their analytics capability to Verizon. But staunch resistance is the party line as Verizon mobile has the scale (and pockets) to determine that the core data is too strategic to be outsourced. In terms of scale Verizon wireless has 100M subs and 57K towers that generate a petabyte of data or 1,25 trillion objects per day crunched currently with 10K CPUs. Verizon’s Ben Parker was pleasantly open saying that an "army of lawyers is happily supplied with plenty of privacy work now we're capturing info on all data packets".

Governance was too frequently mentioned during several presentations not raise an alarm bell in my mind. It seems that those who’ve actually got their hands dirty with Big Data are finding themselves embarked on projects that are difficult to control.

In the end

I was really impressed by the commitment operators are making to big Data on the one hand while clearly expressing reservations or at least warning that we’re just at the beginning of what’s going to be a long Journey.

For further reading here are three other write-ups of the event that I commend:

There’s a mini video interview of Peter Crayfourd here: http://vimeo.com/58535980

Part I of this report (interview of TM Forum's Strategy Officer) is here.

Part II, a discussion with Guavus and Esri, is here.