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Pay TV set-top box needs an open app platform now!

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The release of Bolt, TiVo’s new DVR, highlights the power of bringing all the video services used by consumers together under one entertainment operating system. It is time for operators to adopt this approach, and to go one step further: make the set-top box an open app platform.

What is the best way for an operator to get OTT apps on the STB and go about delivering the level of video service integration found in Bolt to its customers?

The easiest way might be to partner with TiVo directly to deliver a TiVo powered device. Virgin Media in the UK has done this to great success. Back in 2010 Cox announced that it would allow customers to buy a TiVo at retail and its employees would come and install the device in a subscriber’s home, but it never moved forward on the promise. According to Jim Denney of TiVo, however, the cable company will finally follow through on its commitment.

Another way would be to use an existing hybrid service, like Comcast Xfinity TV or Cox Contour, to aggressively pull in OTT SVOD services into the interface. Cablevision has said it will do this with Hulu, though it’s unclear if the company will follow through with this after the purchase by Altice.

Unfortunately, these two approaches both suffer from the same problem, though operators may not see it that way. Leveraging TiVo or an in-house operating system like RDK (reference design kit), the operator curates all the apps running on the box and only allows the ones it deems appropriate for inclusion. There are many problems with this curated approach for both the consumer and operator, including:

  • A very limited set of apps available for the set-top box
  • App development is more expensive because there are fewer developers for the platform
  • Apps with functionality that lags behind versions on popular OS’ like iOS and Android

This brings me to a third, and I think the best, way to bring the OTT entertainment apps to the operator STB. Operators should seriously consider adopting an open entertainment operating system like Android TV. This, I know, sends shivers of horror down the spines of pay TV executives everywhere. Aside from an ingrained suspicion of Googles intentions, the openness of the Android TV platform goes against everything pay TV operators believe in, but it gets the job done and brings sophisticated search and voice control along for free.

This abhorrence for an open approach was exemplified at TV Connect earlier this year. After laying out a persuasive case for Android TV on operator set-top boxes, Sascha Prueter, Head of Android TV Program Management, was asked by an audience member if an operator could stop a competitor’s app from appearing in the Play Store. Mr. Prueter simply replied no, and went on to say operators have to buy in to the open app store as part of Play and the Android TV framework. As far as the audience was concerned, with that answer Android TV ceased to be an option.

Yet pay TV’s closest partners show no such reluctance to work with Google on Android TV. Just last week the company announced that HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, CBS All Access, and Disney will add apps to Android TV.

What the pay TV industry must accept is that while the set-top box remains an isolated island the services it delivers become increasingly irrelevant to users. Subscribers live in an open world with their smartphones, tablets and PCs; all of which are valid entertainment platforms these days. And TiVo, Roku, Apple and Amazon are happy to step in to the role of entertainment service integrators for their customers.

To effectively compete against these new online competitors, pay TV providers need to adopt an open app set-top box platform now. It is only with such a platform that operators can bring their customers all the content and services they want, keep pay TV services front and center in their lives, and help them find something good to watch in the tidal wave of content available to them.

Why it matters

Pay TV subscribers live in an open world with their smartphones, tablets and PCs; all of which are valid entertainment platforms.

While the pay TV operator set-top box remains an isolated island the services it delivers are become increasingly irrelevant to users.

Operators need to adopt an open app platform for the STB to keep pay TV relevant to subscribers.

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(3) Comments

  1. Let’s not forget that rendering HTML5 apps in the cloud and delivering them with online video content as MPEG or H.264 streams can provide a consistent user experience across every STB. UPC Hungary, a Liberty Global operator, already is doing exactly that with the full YouTube experience as well as other apps to existing STBs, in partnership with ActiveVideo and Metrological. At last report, viewer engagement was approaching an hour per session, and more than 2 million minutes of YouTube content were being streamed per day. This enables operators to leverage the ubiquity of HTML5 app development, and to partner with SVOD providers on content distribution business models that benefit both parties, as well as consumers.

  2. I am a bit confused by this article. There is no mention of HTML5. The arguments of the past were that everyone should move away from Java because – well it lost favour and then there was fragmentation and then/still potential hidden royalties that have yet to appear, and then giving your business over to Google … what happened to the argument for web-based technologies such as javascript and HTML because of ubiquity, harmonisation and that there a 100s of thousands of developers out there. Colin this piece is odd to say the least – and feels like a paid advertorial piece on behalf of Android TV. There are it appears some legitimate business reasons not to use Android TV…

    • The point of the piece is that the operators need to put an app platform on the box than anyone can create an app for without seeking permission of the operator. In other words, it’s open to developers, not that it is based on open standards. In this context, HTML5 isn’t really relevant. Perhaps I could have made that clearer in the piece.
      The reason I like Android TV in this role is that it comes with a bunch of apps and Google isn’t interested in doing the guide or VOD apps. You could use Roku, it has 3000 channels, but it’s not as flexible a platform as Android TV. Just for the record, I have no relationship with Google.

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