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Google getting it right at last with Android TV

It may still be too early to be sure, but there are signs that with Android TV Google’s connected video strategy is at last starting to look joined up. There is not yet any killer blow in sight, which could only really come from the content angle, but evidence is mounting that Google now has a clearer and more focused strategy that is winning over TV and device makers as well as app developers. The key lies partly in a much mature Android based ecosystem better geared towards TV than was the case when the abortive first attempt called Google TV was launched with much fanfare in 2010.

Then Android was little more than a mobile OS optimized for smartphones and subsequently tablets, with TV supported as a cumbersome add-on that was hard to develop apps for. But the latest version 5.0 codenamed Android Lollipop, first unveiled during the Google I/O developer conference in June 2014, has been revamped for TV with a completely redesigned user interface. This is a significant enhancement based on Google’s own language called Material Design incorporating tools for easy layout of screens with responsive animations, transitions, padding, and depth effects such as lighting and shadow. It comes with new guidelines for developers that make it easier to create a consistent look and feel across the whole Android device constellation, including big smart TVs down through tablets and smartphones to diminutive smartwatch screens. To encourage app creation further, Google sent out developer units, dubbed “ADT-1”, to those that signed up for a test unit at Google I/O 2014.

These nuances were initially missed by many commentators, myself included, at the time of that conference, perhaps partly because the new Lollipop version was still shrouded in a little mystery. My initial reaction to Android TV was therefore quite negative, suggesting it sent confused messages given that Google was also promoting Chromecast and that it offered little more than already existing competitive offerings such as Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV.

The reason for being more sanguine about Android TV now is not so much that Google has raised its game. If anything it is the opposite in that the horizons have been narrowed to the confines of an operating platform for TV but crucially now aligned with Chromecast as well as with its developer community. What Google has succeeded in doing is strike a balance between encouraging innovation and yet exercising some control over the environment with an emphasis on a consistent UI across all devices, which is something its competitors have not quite matched yet. We have already seen the fruits of this approach through a few OEMs such as Razer, which has announced Forge TV, a set top for Android TV that throws in some of its gaming streaming.

Casting is now at the center of Android TV and pivotal to delivery of content, with the various new boxes, including Google’s own Nexus, Player, being the first dedicated hardware units to support it. This does though pinpoint the challenge of persuading consumers to pay the extra for the full Android TV experience when they can get Netflix and all the basic content they want from Chromecast. Effectively then Chromecast is the entry level version of Android TV with the full monte running on set tops as well as smart TVs, including models announced by Sony, Philips and Sharp at CES 2015.

The killer feature though would be premium live content and all that can be said at this stage is that Google has prepared the ground with its dummy app called ‘Live Channels for Android TV’.  It remains to be seen what will be on it and how far this goes beyond the content currently available either via Chromecast or YouTube. But at least Google is much better placed to strike a major blow in the intensifying connected TV wars.

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Google still playing catch up with Android TV

In this first blog of our Android TV series, Philip Hunter looks at some of the reasons why Google doesn’t seem to have been third-time lucky with its new Foray into the sitting room.

Android TV, Google’s heavily leaked third effort to crack the living room, arrived as expected at its annual Developer conference at the end of June 2014, but once again failed to ignite the field. Google is still playing catchup in its attempts to conquer TV, with the only consolation being that its rivals such as Apple and Microsoft are also floundering in their attempts to stamp their authority on the big screen. Apple TV after all is seven years old now and can still at best be counted as only a moderate success, having failed to establish any sort of market dominance even close to that achieved by iOS for both tablets and smartphones. One reason is that Apple’s iron grip on its ecosystem has proved a handicap in keeping the device isolated and discouraging developers.

Google was determined with Android TV to avoid that fate and continue with its open approach to maximize third party app development with a variety of incentives. But this immediately begs the question for developers of whether Android TV is worth the trouble, unlike the versions for smartphones and tablets where it was always clear there would be a big market. In the case of TV it is still not obvious at all that Android will succeed, given that the market for streaming platforms is already very crowded, with Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox One as well as Apple TV among leading established contenders. There is also Google’s own Chromecast HDMI dongle, representing its second attempt at TV after the abject failure of Google TV. Chromecast has been a reasonable success because of its low price tag of $35 and flexibility, encouraging users to try it alongside their existing pay TV package if they have one, rather than as their primary source of content. But it means Google is now sending mixed and confused messages to both consumers and developers. With Chromecast, Google had given the impression that developers could stop building apps and instead create webpages optimized for the TV screen that would receive commands from an Android smartphone. If Chromecast stays around as it looks like it will, developers now face having to build and support two interfaces to cover the Google TV universe, one for Chromecast and one for Android TV.

The underlying problem though may be with Google’s new strategy of shoehorning Android for TV rather than creating a new operating system. Google is obviously trying to make Android into a ubiquitous operating system with variants for all device platforms, as was evident at its recent so called I/O developers’ conference. There Google unveiled Android Wear for wearables like wristwatch computers, Android Auto for car dashboards and Android One for a new brand of affordable smartphones prices at under $150, as well as Android TV. There is every reason to expect that Android Wear and Android One will be great successes as they are still very much in the heartland of mobile handsets, but with Auto and to an even greater extent TV Google is stretching the envelope of the operating system a long way. History tells us that attempts to create an operating system of everything are doomed to failure, as Microsoft seems to be finding with Windows Phone. Apple had the sense to create a radically new operating system for mobile devices in iOS rather than attempting to adapt the MacOS from its desk top perch. It reaped the rewards with the iPhone and then the iPad.

This leads to the other problem, which is that with Android TV Google is still cast in the role of follower rather than leader, which is not how it grew up to become the world’s most valuable brand. In search Google originally rose to dominance over rivals like Yahoo, AltaVista and Microsoft because it had superior technology and was quickly able to assume a leadership position that came to be reinforced by its human and financial resources. Of course it has been able to reallocate those resources to TV, but without so far being able to conjure up any killer technology.

Android TV actually seems rather similar to Apple TV for the GUI and is modelled on Amazon’s Fire TV in its support for voice input for searching video content. Indeed Google has instructed its developers to avoid need for any text input at all if possible and to rely largely on voice. Google has also stripped out well known features of Android on smartphones, such as support for VoIP, cameras, touchscreens and NFC (Near Field Communication), which are all deemed superfluous for a streaming set top box like device. This is well and good, since it avoids an Android TV box being an over bloated version of a smartphone or tablet. But this may also expose the limitations of the platform, especially as Google is indicating that the operating system will really come of age with its next generation called Android L, which was also previewed at that I/O conference and scheduled for launch towards the end of the year. Android L is a radical rewrite, with improved animation and audio, as well as 3D and contextual awareness, which will all feed into the TV version. Developers may therefore decide to wait until this next generation has arrived before committing to Android TV. Android L will also include many features specific to mobile handsets, including a new battery saving mode, which are mostly irrelevant for the TV version. In this sense Android L will compound rather than solve the problem of becoming too bloated. It may be just a matter of time before the TV version of Android becomes divorced altogether from the mainstream of the operating system, but meanwhile it will most likely fail again to put Google on the podium for OTT TV.

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IP&TV World Forum 2012 preview

If last years theme was OTT (after a Multi-Screen show in 2010), how are we going to put 2012 into a nice neat box?
I’ll gamble on the 2012 theme being something like “IPTV is dead long live OTT!”
I doubt the never-ending rumor mill on AppleTV will have an impact yet in 2012, so Apple Google & Microsoft will wait for 2013 to be main themes…
Back to the present: see you here in a few weeks to find out if I was right for 2012 at least.

 

2012 is set to be a very full and well attended event judging by the number of people I know that will  be there. The conference tracks have become so dense that you need a day to study the program before deciding where to go. I’ll just play it by ear on the day. The number of companies to see on the exhibition floor is so big anyway, that I might not be able to attend much.

 

IPTV has grown into a big show so there are getting to be more parties and extra add-on events.

I’ll be going to the 
Verimatrix “English Breakfast” on the first day which has a mini-conference on advanced video deployment (but at least I admit it it’s the English sausages that attract me).

Mariner Partner are a Canadian IPTV quality-monitoring specialist. They have a drinks party just after the first day, this year I won’t need to gate-crash as I was actually invited.

The Red Bull event later in the evening will probably be packed as usual and I’ve only got one of the tickets that are valid “until capacity is reached”, so maybe not…

On day two Irdeto is hosting a morning OTT strategy event. But I probably won’t make that one, not least because they didn’t invite me )-:

Of course day two wraps up with the glitzy prizes, this year at the London Film Museum. I went to the first 3 events as a judge, but there’s no way I will fork out £300 needed when you don’t have an invite.

I’m sure there are many more events but that’s what I’ve spotted so far.

 

From the list of speakers and potential prize-winners, it is clear that there will be plenty of Operators in London.

I’ll be looking to catch up with some news from Malaysia Telecom that are one of the first Huawei IPTV customers outside of China.

There’s a wrath of interesting people from Orange so I’ll be looking to get the latest form some ex-colleagues there. Also from France, I’ll try to catch up with Bouygues Telecom, which has had an amazing success story as a mobile challenger getting towards a million subs in three years. 
Swisscom is one of the European Telcos that is still happy with the Microsoft’s IPTV solution
 so I’ll tray and get some of the story there.

Paul Berriman, the veteran CTO of PCCW who launched one of the worlds first IPTV deployments in Hong Kong

 will be there too and it’s a while since I’ve caught up with him.

From the trade floor my selection of vendors whose product demos I want to see include:

  • Whoever has cool Android boxes to show (Echostar who impressed in last year don’t seem to be present).
  • Then Harmonic & Envivio to try and really understand how they differ.
  • Rovi, to actually see the demos of what I’ve been talking about for a while.
  • Then there is
 Siemens, where I want to see how their video flicking solution has fared in the market.
  • Zappware is a middleware alternative to NDS & Nagra. As I missed the later two at IBC I’ll try to see those demos that everyone was raving about in 2011.
  • Red Bee have acquired TV Genius since last year so I’ll try and find out how that’s going. There is also a new kid on the block from what I gather with Shazam moving into TV recommendation also.
  • I haven’t been to see Cisco in a while and they seem to have their house in order with Videoscape now so I’ll try and get an update on that too.
  • Ineoquest were talking a lot about ABR for OTT last year, before any of the other monitoring companies and I’d like to learn if they’ve had any success with that (as usual I, then you, will have to read between the lines because they won’t actually say directly).
  • I need an update on the chip maker’s roadmap and ambitions in the STB space so I’ll be visiting one or more of Intel, Sigma Designs & / or STM.
  • I suppose you can’t blog on an event like this without talking to some of the connected TV app developers like WizzTivi.
  • The OTT market is already showing some results in the diaspora market so I’ll also catch up with Live Asia TV if possible.
  • Finally I’m due for an update on what SoftAtHome are doing.

I have some catching up, discovering to do with people that will be there without a booth. I hope to meet MediaMelon a US based CDN supplier specialized in OTT and my friends from 3 Vision, thebrainbehind, MediaTVCom, OnCubed, AppMarket.tv, etc.

Now I need to go to sleep for a couple of days, to charge up the batteries so I will actually be able to get through at least some of that  … report coming soon.

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Google “don’t be evil” and Android-TV will be the biggest news of 2011

Jamie Beach of IPTV News got me talking about Google and the TV back in February 2009. It always made sense that Google would somehow crack the TV Market but I said from the outset in May 2010, that Google TV wasn’t the right way to start.

I recently blogged that Intel’s withdrawal from the connected-TV space was good news for STB makers – I could have updated the post when Adobe subsequently announced that they would withdraw from TV altogether, but instead, this update comes to contradict my prediction that “Long live the STB”.

The Connected TV jungle out there could for example lead to the absurdity of some content being available on Samsung TVs but not on LG, or the other way round. I admire the way some of these set-makers have boldly gone where no man has been before and built up complete ecosystems. Had I been in their shoes, I wouldn’t have been able to do any better, Samsung’s efforts are particularly impressive.

Q: So why the all the fuss now then?

A: That jungle might now get urbanized.

By announcing that Android Market Place was also a TV App Market Place during the OTT TV World Summit in London last week (see twitter feed here), Google has finally acknowledged that even they can’t manage the complexity of merging the Web and the TV single-handedly. I would put all my bets on Android as an underlying OS technology being a long term success in the TV space. But Google TV as a UI and consumer application may not have such a bright future. It took several years to start getting Android right on Smartphones. Good user experience is harder to get right on a TV screen than on a mobile device. Also Google will not be following in Apple’s footsteps with something to benchmark against. If Google can keep Android open and Larry Page keeps his “don’t be evil” mantra going, this end of 2011 will be the pivotal moment when everything coalesces in our industry for the TV revolution to get into to full speed with breakthrough is in new services, new business models and new usage.

STB makers might still fit into this future vision even if the Connected TV finally takes off under Android. A smaller piece of a larger cake ain’t that bad after all.

So in the end it’s all about standardization. In this case it’s one imposed by one player rather than a standards body. If this scenario plays out and Android becomes central to the future of TV, it will be interesting to see how other big guns react.

The set makers will have to join the bandwagon and give up their hopes of getting a slice of the service pie. Perhaps the more advanced like Samsung will salvage something from all those marketing dollars spent, at east for their image. But I still have some questions: what is the XBox going to become in this context? And how will Apple react?

Microsoft, the Evil empire of the 90s, doesn’t have anything to lose in the TV space. From Redmond, Media Room, the companies flagship IPTV platform can’t be much more significant than Apple TV is in Cupertino, some call these initiatives “hobbies”. Apple has a strong influence on much of the OTT market through its HLS protocol widely used for Adaptive Bit Rate (ABR) streaming. With a “don’t be Evil” mantra Apple would continue the move underway from HLS to the MPEG standardized enhancement called DASH. Somehow I doubt they will go through with the transformation, even if they were one of its instigators, but I’d be happy for the industry’s sake, to be proven wrong.

PS: Keep an eye on the IPTV News site for some in depth analysis of Google / Android / TV coming soon, I’ll be collaborating with Jamie there.

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Contrasted feelings, unpacking my Apple TV II

Just to set the scene, I’ve only been an Apple User for just over 2 years, so I still feel pretty novice: my love/hate relation with Apple products still oscillates widely from just loving the way it all works out-of-the-box to really hating how boxed-in it makes me feel. Apple TV II consolidated that that duality of feeling.

The biggest thrill with Apple products is usually unpacking it, and just switching it one WITHOUT reading any manual EVER.

This time, the packaging was merely OK: I felt a bit disappointed, as Apple had raised my expectations from previous products starting with an iPod in 2004 that really blew my mind. Even the little box my iPhone 4 came was so cute that my son asked my to keep it to decorate his room. Apple TV’s box has already been thrown out.

The switching-on ceremony however did stand up to expectations.

Only 10 seconds after having plugged in the power, Ethernet and HDMI cables, I was browsing through movies on my 46” LCD. Admitedly not everyone may have a spare Ethernet cable right next the TV, so I wonder how much more it would of cost Apple to through Wifi in [oops correction: there of course if Wifi, thanks Graham].

But back to those first few seconds. As usual the shear simplicity of the user interface is astounding. I just don’t get it: Why oh why are thre so many more buttons on other remote controls.

The only traditional TV player to have tried something like this (i.e. a 6 button remote) is NDS with Snowflake and they’ve been demoing for years – the situation must be dire to the extent they felt the need to recently release a press statement about some small operator in a very small market planning to launch with it.

Something counterintuitive is happening here, and I still don’t understand. I feel no doubt at all in my guts that this navigational paradigm is superior, yet the market is saying something else. Either one of us is wrong, or I’m missing something. Please comment if you have any ideas on this.

Back to Apple TV itself again, beyond being intuitive it is also kind of fun. Streaming isn’t yet rate-adaptive so when you ask to watch a trailer it takes a while to buffer, but that’s only a few seconds for me, as I live in the city with a decent DSL connection, but I would guess means the AppleTV isn’t really much fun if you don’t have at least 3 or 4 spare megabits.

From a content perspective, I haven’t done a proper analysis of what studios are represented in which proportion (I do that when I’m paid by clients hint hint), but the overall impression is that for the French market at least, is that iTunes really has got a critical mass of exciting blockbuster stuff. There were scores of movies I’d like to see. What I know is once I’ve seen those, how fast does it refresh … time will tell.

Moving to the Internet section I was dazzled by the ease of linking to my Flickr account (nebul2, my photos are public). But frustrated that the mobile.me connection didn’t work – very un-apple to have such a overt bug with no clear error message.

Linking computers was as easy as pie, but epitomised the duality of Apple. The light side of the force was that very ease: just share stuff on you computers WITH iTunes software … and it appears seamlessly on you TV. But the dark side of the force is just there: iTunes or be damned.

Things got even more contrasted when I tried the all-new AirPlay. Again from within iTunes on my Mac or indeed my iPhone, it was fantastic. But even on the Mac you can’t use any other software (maybe I missed something, but why are photos easy to send from the iPhone to Apple TV but not from iPhoto on the Mac?!?). I’ve always felt I understood the “walled garden” expression, but actually I hadn’t. Incumbent Telcos or restrictive mobile operators feel like Wikileaks compared to using AirPlay. It’s a step too far for me in Apple-only land.

I bought a brand new MacBook Air, at around the same time Apple introduced the Apstore to the Mac. << Don’t just download stuff from the Internet, [imagine the snake from the Jungle book saying this next part] trusssst in me, I’m Apple, I’ll let only get the besssst sssoftware that I have persssssonaly checked (and taken a cut from).>>

I again feel torn apart by the beauty of my new toy and the way its closing down into a scary world of big-brother Apple.

But here it must be that I’m just too old-fashioned. For my kids, the open Internet is reverting back to what it broke out of when the Compuserve’s of the world represented a walled-garden Internet.

Maybe Apple is just showing us a way back to the future, but I hope not, I love Apple but it’s getting harder to swallow, and yes you’ve guessed where this is going: I don’t want to end up like Adam.