The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas sets the stage for each new year, and the 2015 edition was no exception. Once largely about home audio, TVs, and car stereo, CES has evolved into a must-attend event for every stakeholder in the digital content value chain; from content creation to the point of consumption and every stage in between. Hence, most of the TV service delivery infrastructure players either had booths on the trade show floor, had suites in the nearby hotels, or did both; and most pay TV operators were there as well.
It must be a huge challenge for the Consumer Electronics Association to select winners of the CES Innovation Awards each year, and being ‘just one guy,’ I won’t even pretend to emulate this task. But I found three items during CES to be especially noteworthy – and taken together, emblematic of the larger trend of platform and service virtualization.
Of great significance is DISH Network‘s continuing evolution as an alternative kind of ‘TV Everywhere’ provider. By launching Sling TV, DISH has both elevated the expectations of what online TV should be, and while it isn’t perfect, has deliberately moved to address the demographic that the pay TV industry is the most concerned about losing: millennials. In my opinion, DISH has been the most forward-thinking of the US pay TV operators in the area of online TV. DISH also announced a new user experience, a track-pad-based TV remote control with speech recognition and a new 4K Joey client set-top box for its Hopper with Sling home media center. DISH’s sibling company EchoStar used CES for the US launch of a new home security and home control offering called SAGE, which EchoStar also demonstrated a few months back at IBC.
Also noteworthy was cable operator Charter Communications‘ new WorldBox set-top box, Spectrum EPG and user experience. Unlike the direction being taken by other Tier-1 cable operators, and in particular with the RDK, where the adopters must have RDK-specific set-top boxes and must upgrade their networks to all-IP distribution in order to realize the full potential, Charter has partnered with Cisco and Active Video Networks to introduce an experience that can be deployed to decade-old set-top boxes as well as new IP video-capable ones. Yet, at the same time, it’s a multiscreen solution. Further details are in my article for CED Magazine.
But to me, the highlight of CES wasn’t at CES itself, but rather, was AT&T’s 2015 Developer Summit and Hackathon at the nearby Palms Resort in Las Vegas. While most pay TV operators advance their features in carefully controlled increments, AT&T offers APIs that allow it to essentially open-source its entire network, and has invited developers of all kinds to play in their sandbox. By doing so, AT&T is providing keys to the kingdom to any developer that helps drive traffic over the AT&T network. While other pay TV operators are taking their first steps into home security and home control, AT&T has not only opened AT&T Digital Life (not to mention its AT&T U-verse pay TV platform) to third party developers, but enables development for mobility, connected vehicles, wearables, and the industrial ‘Internet of Things.’ And a host of partnered developers were there in support.
DISH, AT&T and Charter are each “coloring outside the lines” of conventional wisdom, and I’ll be writing more about each of them in the coming week.
No, I don’t mean Ray Kurzweil’s singularity, a point at which the intelligence of machines exceeds that of humans by evolving on their own. I mean the ability to deliver any video content anywhere, enabled by cloud delivery and any-screen encoding.
A friend of mine forwarded a notice to me, for a Webinar entitled “Turning your software applications into a Cloud Suite,” hosted by Microsoft. Far from being a stranger to the cloud, Microsoft is a major driver of cloud technologies, having virtualized Microsoft Office with its Office365 service in 2010; and by pursuing a number of product and service initiatives in that area.
But it prompted me to reflect: this friend of mine comes from an enterprise-IT perspective. I find that IT people who work in the enterprise space are still generally unaware that the cloud is a reality in the carrier and entertainment space (unless they work in those industries), even though they go home and increasingly use these services every day.
Many (if not most) Tier-1 cable operators and larger Telcos (US, Canada, W.Europe) have now deployed some form of cloud/hosted services. Verizon FiOS TV Flex View, AT&T U-verse Mobile, Comcast XFinity, Time Warner Cable, DISH Online – all have built multi-tiered distributed cloud architectures to host TV, movie and user-generated content over the past two years. Also, ecosystem providers like Apple, Sony (Playstation store – and remember that Sony owns Columbia Pictures)… Not to mention content companies and online aggregators – ESPN, HBO/Cinemax, Showtime, Hulu, Netflix…
Most of these are online-on-demand, but only the rights issues (not the technologies) prohibit them from streaming live/OTT to non STB devices outside the home (many already stream live TV to apps, connected TVs and other IP-connected non-set-top devices inside the home – again, rights-limited). Common streaming, DRM and rendering environments for all types of devices (see MPEG-DASH, DECE/UltraViolet, and HTML5, respectively) – are in the latter stages of standardization, and harmonization across a variety of technical standards bodies is underway.
Also, there already are standardized or proposed reference (network and architectural) models for Transcoding / transcrypting / transrating / trans-sizing etc for multiscreen – at the headend, in the cloud, and at the home (for the latter, see the video gateway category – the next step in the evolution beyond whole-home DVR set-top boxes).
Yes, this ‘singularity’ is coming to the screen nearest you, and it’s on many of them already!
Note: I hope to see some of you at IP&TV World Forum. On March 22, I am chairing the Cloud TV track of that conference. I am also a judge for the IP&TV Awards and will be leading an analyst round table while there.
New Net Neutrality rules go into effect on November 20, 2011. It’s a good opportunity to get beyond the politics of the matter, and into some substance.
My own belief is that open networks are critical in the cloud world (which is the position taken by Google, the FCC and others). Consider this parallel everyday example: a friend of mine uses Verizon Wireless and is therefore defaulted to Bing for search. To him, an annoying inconvenience – but what would happen if suddenly VZ blocked access to Google altogether? Interestingly, it appears that Verizon may challenge the new Net Neutrality rules once they go into effect.
Of course network owners want to monetize their networks. And they can (and why not!), by charging content providers for transport, and by taking revenue splits from advertisers. But please, not by charging the consumer, or enacting bandwidth consumption caps, or by otherwise penalizing the consumer in some way. As is their wont, consumers will find a way around it and have no qualms about bypassing or changing service providers.
A service provider’s networks are a sunk cost that it already bears. It can sell transport services and consumer access to content providers at prices equal to or below what a data-center-based third party CDN provider charges – an incentive for content providers that want to save money. At the same time, the service provider stands to make incremental revenue that likely wasn’t planned for when these networks were designed and budgeted.
Prediction: the average budget-minded consumer will be enraged if they couldn’t access content in the cloud that they had already paid for, and they wouldn’t stand for some service provider talking in code about capex and opex.
Lately, I’ve been seeing more discussion about distributing Apps to various devices. For example, an article in Connected Planet entitled “Do Web App Stores Matter In The Age Of Mobile Apps?” (the title reminds me of “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” which I’m surprised Google or Motorola haven’t tried to borrow yet).
There are lots of pieces to this discussion. There’s the apps- and content-centric discussion: how can the same apps be cross-purposed and used in multiple consumer devices. There’s an operator-centric discussion: how can apps and content be commonly managed and distributed in a more efficient way? There’s a network/planning-centric discussion: How can a service provider do a better (faster, less expensive) job of app and content distribution than a data-center-based CDN can?
I think the Web makes a good common denominator as an interface that consumers can use to acquire and manage apps and content within a multi-play service environment. Mobile smartphones, TV set-tops, PCs and game consoles can all access and display the Web, and there’s less of a need to develop a separate app for every blessed mobile and portable and PC and set-top platform. Develop once, and time-to-market improves. Good argument for Android as well, come to think of it (except for, come to think of it again, the game console and PC parts, since Android doesn’t run there).
A Web-based common interface benefits the service provider too: a Web based store as a common single point of purchase, and a common platform that could associate purchases with devices and entitlements and make sure that the right content and apps go to the right entitled devicees.
As a consumer, if I were subscribed to ABC Service Provider’s TV, mobile smartphone and ISP services, I could sign up for their TV Remote DVR feature using the consumer-facing online storefront. Upon registration or purchase, the associated apps could be pushed to my set-top, to my PC and to my mobile phone, so I could use any of those devices to set up recordings that I can watch when I get home. Or, if the content is hosted in the network cloud, to watch whenever and wherever I want. As a consumer, one point of contact and automated distribution add up to convenience.
As a service provider, it’s a way to leverage common resources to save OpEx and maybe even CapEx. This is going to be a very active discussion. This is part of the future that we’ve used so many awkward acronyms and terms to try and describe. One of my favorites is ICE (Information Communications and Entertainment), which says everything, yet nothing. It’s really well-intentioned and after you think about it for a minute, it’s a good acronym. But would your Uncle Don know what it is?
I’ll be writing more about this over time.