The transition by broadcasters and pay TV operators from traditional services delivered to TV set-top boxes, to multiscreen distribution, seems to have created a two-headed beast with respect to video quality assurance.
On one hand, monitoring for MPEG delivery to STBs involves comparison of the source video before and after encoding, monitoring for data communications errors in transmission, and evaluation of the video after processing or delivery: characteristics like clarity, chroma, luma, A/V sync, the integrity of closed captions, plus things like channel-change latency and so on.
On the other hand, monitoring of adaptive bit-rate (ABR) streaming is more about determining buffering time, rebuffing and freezes, DRM errors, how often the stream changed video profiles adaptively, whether or not the viewer abandoned or completed the video – all of which are more transactionally-oriented. Of course, the data generated by this kind of monitoring is also useful to marketers (and not just to video and network engineers)
In reality, end users generally are not aware of the technologies that make their video experiences possible, nor should they care. Therefore, video providers must take an ecosystem approach that helps ensure the quality and continuity of the overall consumer experience, regardless of delivery or the nature of the end user device.
As it turned out, the first 4K content was distributed over adaptive streaming. But 4K, by definition, is high resolution, and to the end user, it doesn’t matter that the distribution was ABR.
So, in reality, the considerations inherent in the ‘two-headed beast’ of traditional and streaming video quality assurance are really one. The preservation of content integrity during transmission (QoS), the perceived quality at the consumer device (QoE), and whether or not the experience had continuity are equally important. And no matter how the video is delivered, monitoring gives video providers more tools to attract advertisers.
My Spring 2017 report for SNL Kagan, on Multiscreen Video Quality Assurance provides further details and analysis of this situation.
China has more IPTV subscribers than any other country in the world, and IPTV is available to millions of households nationwide. At the 2016 Huawei Global Analyst Summit this Spring, Mr. Jie Feng, CTO of China Telecom Sichuan Branch, explained how its own IPTV service has changed the DNA of his organization.
Traditionally, competition among communications carriers in China has been about providing bandwidth at the lowest possible price. On the mobile side, the three major mobile carriers in Sichuan Province are in a price war: the price for 700mb of data plus 200 minutes of voice service from Sichuan Mobile is equivalent to US$14/month, while Sichuan Unicom and Sichuan Telecom were at US$12 and US$13 respectively. The result is low customer loyalty and greater customer retention costs. In 2011, revenue was growing at a rate of more than 13 percent, but by mid-2013, growth was down to just over 8 percent.
The management of China Telecom Sichuan Province decided that a different approach was needed. Instead of joining the voice and data price war, it would focus its attention on providing Video First. Broadband has long been a national priority in China, not only for the benefit of consumers, but also to attract private investment and accelerate industrial growth. Because China Telecom has rich experience in the fixed broadband business, the company already had the foundation to differentiate itself from its mobile competitors by bringing video to as many consumers as possible.
To accomplish this Video First strategy, a new “Zero, One, Two” business model was put in place, where there is Zero cost for video as a basic service, Internet access over One fiber connection to the home, plus Two smartphones. Unlike the competition, Zero, One, Two enables China Telecom to appeal to the entire household, all for a single price. To support the transformation toward video as a basic service, China Telecom also transformed its organization by combining its TV Broadband, Multimedia, and New Media Operations departments, and placing them under unified management and operations.
By 2015, China Telecom had deployed a full optical network with 90% coverage. Traditional local exchange switches have all been shut down, and voice is all over IP. It took just 330 days from Sichuan Province to go from one to 21 fully-optical cities. In September 2015, the Sichuan government held a ceremony celebrating that it had become the first fully optical province in China. While some construction still remains in remote areas, coverage in cities in 2016 was greater than 98%.
At more than 9 million subscribers, China Telecom Sichuan Branch operates one of the largest IPTV deployments in the world. To provide high definition television, 4K ultra HD and Blu-ray video content, the operator built its ultra broadband metro networks to support 100mbps access. China Telecom also decided that CDN was integral, so it could accommodate not just traditional broadcast video, but also streaming video over the Internet. A three-tier CDN architecture was built, at the province-wide level, in municipalities and in areas that had marginal coverage. To meet the demands of its consumers, China Telecom Sichuan Branch opened its network platform to business partners. Content includes live TV such as China Central Television (CCTV), as well as video on demand, music and games.
Devices are also an important element. Before China Telecom Sichuan Branch placed video in its list of basic services, the operator certified full 4K set-top boxes, a first for any Telco worldwide. Then, there’s a feature called Home & Love. While consumers in other cultures tend to communicate mobile-to-mobile, China Telecom recognized that many younger Chinese consumers rely upon video to communicate with family members far away, so Home & Love enables video calling from Handset-to-Handset, Handset-to-TV, and TV-to-TV.
“We know there are high requirements,” said Mr. Feng. “If there are interruptions or pixilation, we will get calls. So over the past 3 years, we have been developing an end-to-end system for video quality maintenance, from user through the operator’s network. We also are striving for zero configuration of the home gateway and set-top box, and zero verification of quality. We have automatic fault-finding: currently our system can find errors in the home, in the optical modem, and in the network, so it’s an end-to-end system.”
China Telecom’s rigorous standards have been paying off. Installations have increased by four times. Fault isolation has increased by 10%, and customer satisfaction has gone up 12%. The company knows that customer satisfaction can increase greatly if they can identify and deal with problems before customers see them.
“If we can become pro-active, not passive, and forecast the user experience before the complaints come,” said Mr. Feng, “it will help a lot. We will continue to push the border of our video services and become a global leading operator.” China Telecom Sichuan Branch is already well on its way.
The report provides a thorough examination and analysis of the TV Service Delivery Platform (TV SDP) category, and of the SDP offerings available to pay-TV operators from 17 different suppliers. It provides a comprehensive resource for operators that are evaluating new TV service platforms, as well as for those seeking to understand the latest capabilities through which they can enhance their existing offerings or take them multiscreen.
Viaccess-Orca recently posted a thought piece on their company blog, about Apple and Microsoft shaking things up in the OTT video world. It ended with the question: “Who will dominate the living room?” Given the success of the Xbox and Xbox LIVE, versus Apple’s currently serviceable but functionally lackluster entry in the TV category, my immediate reaction was “Microsoft,” but on further reflection, I have to say “leaning toward Apple, but Android is a contender too.”
Now that Microsoft is leaving the TV infrastructure business (Mediaroom), they are on a more even footing with Apple. Both companies have content ecosystems that are tied with their devices and with the cloud. Both have vulnerabilities. While Apple has been absent in the game category, Microsoft has stumbled in two very strategic device categories (ceding the smartphone and tablet categories to others, not to mention its current challenges with Windows).
If revenue is your measure of success, Xbox has sold more units than Apple TV, but Apple has a clear advantage in content revenue. According to researcher NPD Group, Apple iTunes has 65% and 67% of online movie and TV content unit sales, respectively, compared with Microsoft Xbox Video at 10% and 14%.
Usability is a key to the living room and design will make all the difference. The old adage about Web design still counts: more than two clicks and you’ve failed. Usability has always been an Apple hallmark, but as Viaccess-Orca’s article pointed out, Microsoft offers speech and motion control (and what’s next for Siri?). Apple has Airplay but Microsoft has SmartGlass.
The dark horse in this race is Android because third party developers have more of a say on the user experience. Android offers more control over the conventions of interactivity, while Apple and Microsoft have hard-and-fast user interface rules. Whether device companies (Samsung comes to mind) can deliver on that premise remains an open question.
PS: I’m surprised that Viaccess-Orca resisted the temptation to offer their own opinions about winning the living room, being developers in that space themselves, with a five million user living laboratory through Orange (France Telecom).
Despite the fact that I’ve been using PCs on and off since 1981, and remember Windows v1.0 from 1985, I’m often bewildered by Windows 7. When I want to troubleshoot my network, for example, Windows gives me generic help and instructions that often are out of context to the task at hand. Instead, I use the Mac, which puts a diagram of my network on the screen and points out where the issues are.
On Saturdays, The Seattle Times – which is my local newspaper – runs two personal technology columns: one Mac and one PC. Practical Mac talks about Apple products and trends and give tips and tricks, but it’s rarely a ‘fix it’ column. The PC column, Q&A with Patrick Marshall, is invariably dedicated to solving arcane Windows issues (it seems that every third solution involves reinstalling the operating system, the device drivers, or both). Not that the Mac doesn’t have issues too, but juxtaposing these two columns provides a contrast.
So, when Microsoft said that it had ‘Reimagined Windows’ (their term) with the release of Windows 8, many people wondered whether or not Microsoft had learned its lesson. The teaser screen-shots before release (this one is typical) made it appear that Microsoft had finally committed to usability.
But it seems that they have not. Even The Seattle Times – which is also Microsoft’s local newspaper – can’t sugar-coat the situation: the business section has been reporting on the challenges to Windows 8, and The Times is not alone in this. Everyone from The Motley Fool to Ars Technica have not been kind either.
The combination of the negative press and the product itself have had an impact. ZDNet reported in April that Windows 8 OEMs have already revised their PC sales forecasts downward for 2013. Software developers are not flocking to Windows 8 either. Through June 30th 2013, Microsoft is paying developers to write apps for the desktop and phone versions of the Windows 8 platform, in stark contrast to its competitors.
Then there’s the Microsoft Surface ‘tablet.’ Again, high expectations have given way to disappointment. One version of the Surface uses more than 2/3 of the device’s available storage space just for the operating system, whereas competing devices use much less. Retailers are discounting the Surface as well. and so are device makers.
An unfair assessment? Casting judgment while the jury is still out? The Surface provides a cumbersome user experience. It’s too thick and heavy to be a tablet, doesn’t have the solid feel of other tablets, and the keyboards are covered with a sponge-like material that would be doomed in one coffee spill flat. And not to mention how poorly the Windows 8 user interface fails to deliver past its Start screen. Why couldn’t Microsoft bring the ‘Metro’ UI across the entire Windows experience?
Compare with Apple. While Microsoft seems to be bent on putting nearly the same Windows experience everywhere, Apple has accepted that the user experience can differ from one device to the next in a device-appropriate way. A few releases ago, the conventional wisdom was that the iOS/mobile experience would also become the MacOS X experience, and this has not taken place. Although MacOS X has some iOS-like features (for example, Launchpad, a version of the Mac desktop that presents apps the same way the iPad and iPhone do), Apple did not make Launchpad the default user experience, whereas Metro is the default for Windows 8.
It’s almost as if Apple said “We’re going to try this and see if consumers adopt it” plus “Let’s make it easier for people coming to the Mac from iOS for the first time,” while Microsoft said “We’re going to tell you how Windows is going to work now.” Microsoft’s usability test facilities are top notch, but Microsoft seems more worried about making sure you know how their product works rather than taking user reactions back into product design. I’ve been in many Microsoft usability studies and I can recall several where I simply couldn’t figure something out, and the usability engineer would come out from behind the 2-way mirror and show me how it works. Think about that for a minute…
And don’t get me started about ‘the ribbon’ in Office. I was under some time pressure the other day to do an animated slide with ‘build ups’ in it. Assembling an animated slide used to be a matter of selecting objects in the slide and assigning an action to it. After 10 minutes trying to find this functionality in the UI, I gave up. Thanks.
So after nearly 30 years, the concept of Windows no longer seems to fit what consumers are buying, and Windows 8 and the Surface are case in point. It was a good run. But no, Microsoft hasn’t lost the consumer altogether. There’s still the Xbox 360, an industry unto itself.
But no matter how hard Microsoft tries, the PC roots of Windows can’t be disguised in today’s usability-driven, mobile, post PC world. As a result, Microsoft has now missed the two great device opportunities of this young century – smartphones and tablets – and has squandered its Windows franchise. Smartphones and tablets are built around ecosystems, and Microsoft apparently can’t to commit to one that extends beyond the Xbox. But ecosystems are another discussion for another day.
This wasn’t meant to be an “Apple Fan Boy” article, but Microsoft has made itself an easy target. Hopefully this situation turns around for Microsoft. But it will take an infusion of vision to make that happen, which is sorely lacking at the top. And now there are concerns that the same is true of Apple, post Steve Jobs. We need our innovators to be innovative, so let’s hope that better days are ahead for both.
MRG has released the report Multiscreen Video Security, written by Steven Hawley of tvstrategies. The report describes the Conditional Access (CA) and Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies used to secure pay TV content across a wide range of connected CE devices, and includes a global forecast through 2016. Security products and solutions from eleven (11) leading video security vendors are detailed, including the types of distribution and devices that they support.
In addition to CA and DRM, the report explains the roles of watermarking, fingerprinting, key obfuscation, embedded root-of-trust, clone detection, tamper detection and link-layer security; and explains how these enabling technologies work.
At CES 2013, Cisco held an event which included demos of Cox Communications new Cisco video gateway, a Cox TV app on the iPad, and a new EPG. DISH Network launched a new version of its Hopper whole home DVR and AT&T held its 2013 Developer Summit. Read the rest of the article on Telecompetitor…
At CES 2013, Verizon Communications showed off a variety of updates for its FiOS TV service, as well as a demonstration of the forthcoming Redbox Instant service from the Verizon-Coinstar joint venture. Read this article on Telecompetitor…