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Summing the IP&TV World Forum 2011 up with two letters: O & T, then looking at it from three angles: content, technology & operators.

I was expecting Over-the-top to be a prevalent theme, but not to swamp the whole conference the way it did. From the few conference talks I attended, right from the OTT Forum breakfast to Netflix’s keynote on the last day OTT was in everyone’s slides. Then on the exhibition floor there wasn’t a booth that didn’t have the precious two letters somewhere on a wall or at last in the literature.

OTT is a totally different proposition depending on which angle you take. My company is called CTO innovation Consulting, because we strive to work withall three of Content owners, Technology providers and Network Operators. So lets have a look at those three angles.

For Content owners like Hollywood studios, OTT is just another channel. In an ideal world it should represent only potential, but as Hulu pointed out at the conference, it could imply reduced margins, and if it kills off other channels it’s generally bad news. The typical knee-jerk way to fight back is to go direct to the consumer so that if there is a smaller cake to share, there are less people to share it with. Knees can jerk incredibly fast, but not much thought goes into the process.

Technology providers are eagerly rubbing their hands together in anticipation of selling new solutions. A few of the industry top guns like Apple & Google are actually changing landscape. But for the rest, be it small start-ups like the army of Connected-TV specialists, larger appliance suppliers such as encoding companies like Harmonic or Envivio, software suppliers like Adobe and even Microsoft or even OTT pure players like TVinci or Capablue it’s just one huge sales bandwagon to get on.

Now for the hardest part: Network Operators. During time of rapid broadband penetration (almost 10 years ago in developed markets, around now in emerging ones), however creative the marketers, the key selling feature has always been “as big a pipe as possible for a small a subscription as possible”. Then, as markets mature the issue becomes one of climbing up the value chain, adding value: being more than just a dumb bit pipe. OTT is a double-edged sword in this respect. It lets network operators easily access third party services and dress them up in their own colours, but it also means any other service is just a click away. This is where the Net neutrality debate comes in and it was amazingly absent from the IP&TV World forum discussions. As if the whole industry had its head in the sand. I didn’t hear a single mention of the big US operators recent decision put caps on existing data plans.

If the hype keeps up, you can expect the show to soon be rebranded OTT World forum.
I’ll be writing up my discussions on some of the booths from next week.

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My plans for IP&TV World Forum 2011

Like many attendees, this year I’ll be wearing several different hats again during the show. I’ll start as a blogger and a bit of a twit (@nebul2), then put on the independent expert & analyst attire. I shall finish off the conference wearing my active IP&TV / VoD consultant’s hat.

On the exhibition floor, I’ll be milling around and peeking at everything. Last year was notable for the fancy UI demos based on Intel chipsets. This year I expect the other chipset vendors to respond. So I’m looking forward to Sigma Design’s G.hn demos and whatever is new from ST and co. I trust Pace, ADB and the other STB makers will oblige.

I’m proud to have got my 3D prediction right: last year was too early for the 3D bonanza, and it looks like this year is already late enough to avoid it again, so I don't expect to waste much more time looking at puny 3D demos.

Last year’s OTT and connected TV demos were still mostly just concepts despite several of them having already been around in 2009, but I expect to see more live services demoed this year. I’ll be especially attentive to any booths that are showing OTT services that, beyond looking desirable to the end-user, make business sense. I suppose a holy grail while going from OTT demo to OTT demo will be anything that looks like it could become a connected TV Esperanto, but that’s probably just wishful thinking; I must save some expectations for 2012’s show.

Now for the conference.
Day one: I’ll head off to the OTT breakfast hosted by an interesting ecosystem of companies, three of which I often write about. For OTT to make a difference, cooperation is central that’s why I find this initiative interesting.
Awox’s Olivier Carmona is technical marketing director of a small company with a big vision that dared to nail its colours to the DLNA mast way before it was hip.
I’m looking forward to a scheduled interview with Steve Christian of Verimatrix.
Unlike most competitors in the security business who still only really care about today’s CAS cows, Steve also gets fired up about what’s coming. He often leaves me with a “why didn’t I think of that” feeling.
Next comes Thierry Fautier who is Harmonic’s IP convergence guy. His forceful views on the way the industry is heading always take me by surprise.
Then I’m looking forward to getting the views of Minerva, Real & Heavy Reading whom I know less well but will be there too.

Thus I’ll miss the opening keynote plenary. The main conference room is usually packed with journalists so if anything interesting comes out of those presentations I’ll pick it up on twitter (@julianclover usually tweets if its really breaking news so I recommend following him as well as the #iptvwf hash tag). The only operator in the opening session is Virgin Media. IP&TV WF still has this bizarre UK focus on keynotes in spite of the fact that this is supposed to be a WORLD forum and that the UK is a long way from the centre of the IP&TV universe. As an expat Brit, I can’t help wondering if it’s an unconscious remnant of the British empire: when my Austrian grandparents got married in the 20s, they went to the centre of the world for their honeymoon, it was Nelson’s column. But that was almost a century ago.

Anyway, back to IPTV, I’ll then spend the rest of day one between the 4 conference streams and the exhibition floor.
As I’ve always been fascinated how marketing genius creates brands like Häagen-Dazs or Red Bull out of absolutely nothing, I’ll try and get to the Red Bull presentation at 3:10 in the Content stream.

Wednesday morning’s plenary seems more promising with speakers from both YouView and HbbTV, so I’ll be looking forward to some sparks flying there and a debate beyond the confines of the UK market.
If I still have fee time in the morning, I’ll be going to the Network optimisation stream, which is about adaptive rate streaming, one of my hobby horses from 2008. Huw Price-Stephens, the stream chair is probably the best chairman I’ve seen at IP&TV WF. He’s witty and provocative, so even when the speakers disappoint, he raises the standard. I’ll certainly be staying in his stream later in the afternoon, as a panellist at 15:10 on video delivery for the last mile.

I don’t know if that’s a demotion or a promotion, but for the first time, I’m not invited to the awards ceremony, which is held this year at the end of day 2. I never like Madame Tussaud’s and in any case I’ll be going to an exclusive Warner & Grey Juice screening that evening instead.

Day three will kick off for me at 8AM as I’m hosting an analyst breakfast on the commoditization of IPTV. So far we’ve had an exciting LinkedIn debate with 60 contributions so far. It came in response to a blog on the death of IPTV in France that I published on my site.
Then for much of the last day I’ll be wearing a consultant’s hat talking to clients.
I’m not too worried about missing the Google & Netflix talks during the plenary session. I’ve only ever been disappointed when listening to these big guns. Note that that may be because my expectations are set wrongly.
I’ll try and catch some of the CDN stream, which focuses on where operators are either in pain or see opportunity today as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow for the other streams.
IPTV WF have had to fight so hard to get credible speakers from the network operators (I remember being one of the first in 2004 or 2005), that now the pendulum has swung the other way: in the whole day on CDN’s almost all speakers are network operators. I’ll make a point of trying to attend the presentation from Astro, the Malaysian DTH platform at 3:30. It’s always better to start by understanding the market needs before the offers.

Then it’ll be a rush back to St Pancras station to catch a Eurostar, and hopefully write up some notes to publish here on the journey home.

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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.

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Maybe not all cord cutting is so bad for the industry after all?

I just read David Mercer's blog called "Europe’s TV Viewers Cut the Cord: Free TV Alive And Well" on Strategy Analytics blog.
I wrote a comment on their site, then suddenly the comment feature disappeared.

After reading the European Commission’s latest household communications survey, David draws a bleak picture. European's all over the continent are saying how they are leaving cable-TV for digital terrestrial which is still making big inroads throughout Europe. Read his interesting piece here.

What I wrote as a comment was that maybe cable operators will end up leaner and meaner once they shed all those subscribers that only watched FTA on their service.
ARPU should go up and customer call centers can deliver better service and/or reduce costs.
The survey doesn't say if cable are losing their triple play or high ARPU customers which would really hurt the business.

I know that in France at least, PayTV via DTT has all but flopped.
Joe Bloggs, or Madame Michu as she's called here, considers that DTT is for free TV, Cable and Satellite for pay TV and IPTV is somewhere in between.

YouView's potential success will be more of a real test for the likes of Britain's cableco Virgin or satellite platform Sky, because the DTT platform Freeview is already prevalent in the UK. A successful YouView with monetized OTT, would constitute really scary cord cutting for pay-TV execs.

I agree with David that the landscape is changing, but maybe not as fast as he implies.
I'm sure Strategy Analytics could match some operator subscriber numbers with this declarative survey to add some credibility.

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Hype-ometer: Comparing lack of rate adaptive buzz with 3D buzz

The more hype the less genuine importance?

Rate-adaptive technologies occupy very little media space but will radically transform the Internet and broadcasting industries.

3D on the other hand is yet again making all the headlines (yes is has done several times over the decades), but I’m convinced this new surge of interest will barely be remembered as just another blip on the radar, a few years from now.

Counting Google hits is by no means science, and you write ‘3D’ in most languages as oppose to “rate adaptive” which is English only, but getting 170 million hits for the search “3D cinema OR TV” (limited to English language) while the search ”rate adaptive cinema OR TV” gets 240 thousand must portray a bit of the hype imbalance between the two topics.

Walking through the booths at IBC for example, you’ll see 3D used on booths whichever way you look, to entice wanderers-bye to stop. Counting the number occurrences of “rate adaptive” on booth walls will be easier!

First let’s look at one reason why 3D is generating such a fuss at places like IBC.

The global economy is apparently picking up after a recession and cyclic industries like the electronics industry need to have something new to push. 3D serves that purpose well. For set makers, there is now a wider and wider array of new high tech parameters to get people to think they need a new TV. On top of the traditional TV specs like screen resolution, size, contrast, colour management etc., there’s also now Internet connectivity, widgets, OTT services and home networking.

This list of features is also used to differentiate from competition. In the end, even if 3D never really takes off in the living room, the likes of Sony, Philips, LG, Sharp or Samsung will have benefited from the hype. 3D is just one of many many features and can only help sales.

Device makers make cool devices but - Apple apart – they don’t deliver cool services. For the 3D revolution to happen, content needs to start flowing.

Apart from the set makers, the other group that have a vested interest in making 3D take of are service providers who feel it would give them an added value.

Now for some reasons why this might remain hype and never make it to mass-market.

Today’s side-by-side trials by satellite operators actually have to reduce resolution. They basically split the screen and send the left and right components of the 3D stream on each half of the screen. Feedback I’ve had has been disappointing as viewers notice the drop in resolution from HD, which is not compensated for by 3D.

3D will have to be broadcast in full HD resolution to have an outsider’s chance of delivering its promise. To do this a bandwidth of 20% to 100% increase will be required. DSL and unmanaged Internet will drop out of the race, at least for live content. So the only stakeholders I see pushing hard to get the 3D bandwagon rolling are satellite operators – and in some cases FTTx and Cable operators – for whom bandwidth is less of a blocking point. That’s why Sky has several 3D initiatives and been showing some impressive demos for over a year, they rightly see 3D, if it takes off, as keeping them one stage ahead of the game.

But even the biggest marketing muscles are ineffective to make a person adopt something that doesn’t bring any benefit to them.

When a movie especially thought of for 3D comes along people will notice. But beyond aesthetics, this doesn’t answer a need expressed by users or yet imagined by marketers.

HD improves the experience of any content, whereas 3D is beneficial only to content specially designed and created for 3D. It’s a funny contradiction that the sex industry was one of the last to take up HD, (indeed who wanted more gynaecology?) but may take back its role as innovator for 3D (have a beautiful body passing right by your fingertips can have more effect that just seeing it in 2D). But beyond that early adoption, 3D will remain niche for most of us for a few years yet, because it doesn’t answer any of our needs. It might even remain niche forever like 3D photography has for over a hundred years.

Aesthetics alone can however make an impact if 3D becomes part of our culture. 3D will have to permeate all aspects of production, starting with design of the content; this is underway, but will take years.

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Rate adaptive is a lot less sexy to talk about than 3D. Indeed there isn’t all that much to show, except maybe to geeks who understand what’s happening under the hood.

Rate adaptive technologies will however enable the delivery of services people have been wanting from the Internet from the outset. This month’s Wired magazine cover reads “The Web is Dead”, inside you’ll see they mean that it’s video in particular that is killing it. Delivering video over the Internet remains a challenge though. In the media space one of the rare companies out there that was saying this out loud was Verimatrix with their white paper from last year "Adaptive Rate Streaming: Pay-TV at an Inflection Point". They don't seem so focussed on the subject (at least on their Website in the sun up to IBC), I'll try and find out why and keep you posted.

An early implementation of rate adaptive technology from Move Networks led the market by several years and almost made it to the mainstream when they were rolling out web streaming services with major US studios. Somehow they failed in the last stretch. Positioning and marketing must be to blame, because the technology is beautiful. They have now moved out of the B2C space and head-ends and are concentrating on enabling TV delivery for corporate customers.

Rate Adaptive technology is picking up speed in the consumer market. It is one of the latest exciting things from all of Microsoft, Apple and even Adobe. Of course all the encoder manufacturers like Envivio support it too now.

UK’s project Canvas CTO Anthony Rose recently said it’s “essential for Quality of Experience on a range of Internet bandwidth”.

He’s right and there should be more fuss about it in the media it’s really much more significant than 3D.

Bad quality and unreliability have been real killers to both user aspirations and business models for all Web streaming efforts from even before the Internet bubble days.

The traditional pay-TV model may survive in a renewed shape, but even the most conservative execs in the industry agree there is a major shake-up underway and OTT is one of its names. Content owners frown upon many OTT ventures, but to reassert control, content owner are investing themselves heavily in TV-Everywhere initiatives so that consumers have access to premium content from anywhere. That means pushing content across unmanaged networks.

Google’s entry into the market reinforces the feeling of unstoppable change.

As the MP3 and music industries debacle showed, people want more freedom in consuming content. Companies, TV content creators included, need to make money. Rate adaptive technology is the key enabler for both to be satisfied.

User surveys invariable show that consumers are happy to pay for content; as long as technology is seamless and doesn’t get in the way. Price points will find their natural equilibrium on their own.

Finally a little technical perspective [geeks only from this point]: what do you actually need to deliver rate adaptive say in a STB? A recent LinkedIn post by Amino’s CTO Dominique Le Foll puts it nicely in a nutshell.

The most high-level requirement is to adapt quickly and automatically to a change in available bandwidth. All components of the stream must of course remain synchronised (video, audio, teletext / closed caption). All features requiring significant processing must be supported by hardware (demux, decode, etc.). Trick modes must be supported for Fast Forward, Rewind, Pause, etc. Of course the technology license must be affordable and content protection must be possible. I also agree with Dominique that streaming should be based on http. This is the best solution via the NAT in end-user’s home, but it also means that in some implementations of the technology (e.g. Move Networks), streams can make use of cheap HTTP caches throughout the Internet (this is akin to free multicast feature in the network). Adjusting the initial buffering level will be tricky to achieve good TV user experience, but who said it would be easy?

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IP Vision was back in the news in August with concerns about Canvas

IP Vision formally lodged a complaint with Ofcom on August 18th.

As several others in the industry, IP Vision, claims to be the leading provider of hybrid DTT/IPTV over-the-top (OTT) TV. They do ad credibility to the claim by stating in the same sentence that it’s a nascent sector, which shows that they know what they're talking about and so must be active in it Q.E.D! Numbers of subscribers are still less important than mindshare. Their core technology, from Netgem is also doing well elsewhere, like for example in the Telstra launch in Australia.

Clearly they are legitimate in asking Ofcom to examine whether the Canvas joint venture will “stifle industry innovation, inhibit competition and ultimately restrict consumer choice”.

But are they founded, or is it just sour grapes for not being part of Canvas?

By calling the Canvas gang “Goliaths, supported in part by BBC licence fee funds”, IP Vision’s CEO Eddie Abrams is casting himself as David.

As an industry observer, my initial response is that he’s right and that it just ain’t fair, but that thought is immediately followed by the one telling me that he’s wrong to be worried.

The background to this story is that the BBC must remain technology agnostic. Last year they prevented IP Vision from releasing their own implementation of iPlayer. Of the two main reasons stated at the time, one was maintaining the BBC brand value. I can buy that, although it could have been managed in a more creative way, maybe by creating an “iPlayer Compatible” brand.

The other reason was about preserving the value of the investment the beeb had already made in iPlayer. That argument doesn’t hold water. Despite having some of UK’s best techies onboard, the beeb will always be a behemoth (suits better than Goliath), and managing libraries of source code, some proprietary, some public domain, accompanying API’s and the likes, is not the core business of a public broadcaster.

However I can see both arguments and understand how the situation would leave IP Vision with some grievances.

Why IP Vision shouldn’t be worried though, is because If Canvas fails, well it’s all benefit to that company; but if they succeed its even better.

A successful Canvas will turn what Abrams calls a nascent industry into something really big. IP-Vision will always be more agile & nimble than a bunch of Goliaths. In the end, OTT is also about giving power back to the end user. If IP Vision and their technology partners focus all their energies on delivering the best product (and I won't write the "instead of" part of this sentence), which they can, then IP Vision can reclaim their first mover advantage. After all David didn't have the strength to confront Goliath head-on, but he was fast and accurate with a slingshot.