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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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IBC 2012 Takeaways

I didn’t actually see much Web-TV as I had expected to (see previous blog), but several IBC 2012 write-ups I have read so far, including those from people I respect like Giles Cottle or John Moulding have said say that there was no new “big thing” this year. I disagree or otherwise, there never is anything radically new – it depends on your point of view. Below is what I picked up as genuine game changers:

  • The Telia Soneria STB shrunk into a Samsung TV app is a true paradigm shifter.
  • VO’s second screen “Deep” app is also a breakthrough innovation; with the “doh-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that” magazine approach to content browsing.
  • Sony’s 4K consumer TV hit me in the stomach just as hard as when I first saw an HD display about ten years ago.
  • Huge progress in the way data can be extracted from devices with extensions to the TR-069 protocol shown at the ADB, the SoftAtHome or the Mariner Partner’s stands to name just a few (bit expect more detailed reports after BBWF next month).
  • All this data will need to be crunched, paving the way to a major 2013 theme, which will be Big Data.
  • NDS showed their Solar project that is all about bringing this Big Data approach to TV. Project Fresco (ex project Surfaces) was also being demoed behind closed doors, and even if it’s hard to see this impacting the market for many years, it is a mind blowing demo using a massive 6k display.

In my forthcoming write-up also expect an update on Verimatrix’ never ending successes, a sexy start-up called Klia with a CRM product delivering part of the Big Data promise before anyone else, HEVC news or lack thereof, Kit digitals strong attempt to reassure and updates on Zappware, Harmonic, Capablue, Visual Unity, Broadpeak, never.no, Corpus Media labs.

If one of these subjects is of more relevance to you than others, let me know, I’ll be sure to cover it more thoroughly … detailed write-up coming soon.

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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.

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Intel’s reported exit from connected TVs: long live STBs

I feel like I’ve had the discussion on whether the future of TV includes STBs a thousand times at least. I seem to conclude yes about half the time, then no the other half.

I joined geekdom in the late eighties so my technological world vision was built around the Wintel duopoly. Remember when Microsoft brought out windows 3.1 (the first version that really worked). Most PCs needed to be changed. Then again when Intel came up with a new chip, twice as fast as the one 18 months ago, software vendors like Microsoft, Adobe, or game developers would quickly bring out « great » new features using all that power.

Asked whether the TV has an STB in its future, my answers always refer back to those simple old Wintel days: as long as people like NDS can come up with hungry UIs that require ever more processing power under the hood, then yes. Indeed the NDS latest Snowflake UI is reputed to be just one such power hungry killer-application.

Upgrading the TV’s processing power has always been harder than to swap out an STB. Traditional business models usually have it that a 500€-1000€ TV set belongs to the subscriber whereas the 50€-200€ STB belongs to the operator. In the days before connected TV and IP, the shelf life of a box was about 7 years. If the accelerated rate of change means that this has to be shortened to say 3 years, so be it. Lowering hardware prices will absorb a good part of the extra cost and the business model can take on the extra 10-15€ a year that shortened amortizations adds.

We had a changing world that I made some kind of sense out of with my Wintel analogy. But Intel then goes and exits connected TVs. How can that fit into the picture?

Despite their vested interest to sell to every part of the value chain, Intel have basically told the market that they believe their future is in the STB and companion devices, not the TV itself. The extra shelf life of TVs could be the culprit here. I’ll be looking out for the roadmaps of other silicon vendors to see if they agree. But Intel carries so much weight that their analysis will affect the market even if they are wrong in the long term.

Thank you Intel for helping me to treat my split-personality disorder. I am no longer wavering and clearly do see an STB in the TV’s future at least for the next couple of years. Other stakeholders were already pointing in this direction like Microsoft’s with their big X-Box push in the TV space and Apple’s non-entry into TV sets despite persistent rumors.

Jamie Beach of IPTV News recently pointed out to me how Google’s Android strategy seems to be heading towards some kind of convergence with the TV. In the short term that will probably mean that Google’s role in the TV will be played out on android companion devices only. It’ll still be a couple of years before they get the lean back STB or TV OS sorted.

If anybody at Samsung, Philips, LG, Toshiba, Sony or any other set maker was worried about Intel’s move, they are wrong. Their Connected TV strategies may need to be scaled down, but as soon as I have some spare cash I can now go and buy a new TV, based on its screen qualities and stop worrying about its OS, processing power or Apstore… I worry about the connectedness of my TV set itself when I next upgrade in 2 to 3 years.

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Standards in the age of Connected TV

Tomorrow I’m speaking at the Future TV conference in Copenhagen (if you speak Danish take a look here).

My presentation is about standards in the age of the connected TV, and here’s what I’ll be saying.

I’ll start by stressing the fact that issues are fundamentally different for:

  • Channels,
  • TV platforms,
  • CE vendors,
  • Telcos,
  • OTT players

In setting the scene I be wondering what the jury on the lean-back lean-forward debate will decide. It seems that globally, no unique view on what the connected TV is prevailing yet.

Mixing TV & Web has been a hot topic for over 15 years, so why all the fuss now?

Firstly devices in people’s homes have comparable power and screen size to a PC. Secondly, the mobile Internet actually works, at last. Finally broadband has become a commodity.

But there are still some clouds the horizon. There is a possibility that you can’t watch what you want because you have the wrong TV set! This would be the case if Sony were to do a deal with one OTT catch up TV supplier and Samsung use a different one. Another ominous sign on the horizon are the broadband caps being (re)introduced in the US. Such capping could still thwart OTT in its infancy if the movie industry gets its act together faster and better than the music industry did.

Leaving future gazing aside for a moment, the market has already telling us quite a lot. For example, compulsory standards rarely work, at least they haven’t in this space as the EBU’s attempt at enforcing MHP showed.

Standards efforts in the connected TV space have come from different stakeholders. Broadcasters have only really wanted a TeleText 2.0 for now, 40 years after V1.0. Then there’s the CE industry that has totally failed so far, by delivering a connected TV jungle and device-centric standards which are sound, even good (e.g. DLNA), but that still need a lot of work before they can be used to implement usable services. Standards bodies close the scene.

Indeed the usual suspects such as ITU-T or EBU are taking standards based approach and have, as previously stated, staunchly supported MHP (only deployed in Italy and on some Bluray players). Ad-hoc groups like the OIPF (whose work is based on W3C, DBV etc.) also include HbbTV (which is now an ETSI standard deployed in only France, Germany & UK for Freesat), YouView is (for now) the standard for the rest of the UK.

But a product-based approach could standardize the marriage of TV and the Web. The big names from the Web include Apple, Google TV and Yahoo! Widgets. Some operators are bringing out their own products like Cubovision from Italy’s Telecom Italia. Then from the TV solution providers there are a endless hopefuls from the big NDS or Nagra, through the Set makers like Samsung or Sony to device and solution makers like TiVO or even Netgem.

Some standard issues I will cover include the overwhelming of standardization processes. Standardization efforts take time as consensus is needed; yet the market is moving faster & faster… Within good old-fashioned IPTV standards there already is a clear geographic split with ATIS standardizing IPTV in the US while OIPF is doing the same elsewhere and NTT is doing it’s own thing in Japan.

There are even some double standards with a disconnect between actions and intentions. A “Land-grab” is underway with UI & content used to differentiate connected TV services. Standards make differentiation harder and most are pushing them under the carpet for now. The OIPF for example has many CPE vendors as members, but they are not mandating the specifications within their own technology yet. Even Telco’s don’t seem to push that hard to live out their commitments. So far, only broadcasters are playing the standards game by the book.

The Open IPTV Forum or OIPF defines services that use managed as well as unmanaged network delivery. As broadcasters are only interested in unmanaged delivery for now (i.e. OTT), HbbTV only uses part of OIPF. As there is a lot of overlap at the technical level, in ideal world, YouView could use HbbTV as an underlying standard. In the end this will happen anyhow, not because the ideal world will be reached, but because one of the two standards will die and the other will take it over.

In my talk I’ll also focus on what the EBU has been saying recently on Hybrid standards. In London during the Connected TV Summit this month, they noted that content consumption is changing with off-line usage, the diversity of devices and delinearization. Of course business models still rely on content, which must explain the still rising viewing figures for linear TV in many Europe countries. EBU say that broadcasters don’t innovate, lack global approach and still “control” the TV set in the home. EBU further note that CE vendors are already in the market because of falling margins and Improved connectivity that have together created the ideal opportunity. However they have global solutions that don’t always fit the varying markets and are not at all interoperable.

Zooming in on YouView, I’ll remind the audience of its design goals which were to:

  • align with industry trends,
  • run on silicon products that are available in the market now,
  • use open source software where appropriate,
  • provide suitable APIs to abstract from underlying software implementation,
  • and allow manufacturers to differentiate their products.

Then what about HbbTV?

Well it defines itself as a minimum requirement for a business neutral technology platform and an boasts being an available ETSI standard for hybrid entertainment services, based on other standards from OIPF, CEA, DVB and W3C.

Its 3-fold objective is to simplify the implementation in devices, leave room for differentiation and limit the investment for CE manufacturers. Hmm sounds a bit familiar.

HbbTV is still very young and there are already clamors for some key features to be included in future versions. Adaptive streaming, widgets, second screen support, DRM frameworks and push-VOD via broadcast are just some such examples.

I’m not sure how the future will come about, but I will suggest that we are waiting for our “iPod moment” in the connected TV standards space.

Will it be design driven like the iPod itself by design and tight control to bring true usability? Will it come form a business model innovation like the iPhone that added Apps to an already great user experience? Or will users decide on what the next big thing is on their own, like they did with the barbaric user experience of the SMS that answered a true need.

Wrapping up I’ll note that current standards focus on CE vendors or broadcaster issues, not on users.

The broadcast industry is still trying to control subscribers with standards; at best this can be moderately successful. The CE industry has not got its act together at all with a jungle of competing connected TV environments. The promise is too big for any of them to turn back just yet.

So if the time is indeed ripe for an “iPod moment” determined by the end user, will it be Apple’s whose interest is the TV remains a bit opaque? Or maybe another it could be another Internet big-gun like Google or Microsoft?

My bet would rather be on Netflix. If they steer clear of the torpedoes currently being launched at them from several directions, they could follow in Google’s tracks. Netflix could move from a best-in-class service to deploying an underlying technology (like Google did with Android). Connecting the TV and the Web is not an objective in its own right, but inventing lean-back V2.0 (or veg 2.0 as Anthony Rose put’s it) is. Content recommendation & navigation has to be part of the solution, so if Netflix isn’t the one, it’ll be someone else with outstanding content navigation that will deliver they connected TV’s “iPod moment”.