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Cross-Platform Apps Still Growing on the Vine

Sat, 07/31/2010 - 8:45pm
Mike Robuck, Senior Editor

TV Everywhere is out of the starting blocks, but there are more miles to cover for cross-platform applications.

TV EverywhereWith the proliferation of TV Everywhere type services, phase one of cross-platform application development is well underway. Throw in mobile services and applications, such as this summer’s World Cup coverage, and there seems to be momentum building toward the “any content, anywhere, on any device” mantra we’ve been hearing about over the past few years.

But the devil is still in the details on tying all of the applications together across all of the devices and networks. The flavors of digital rights management, devices – including Android phones, Apple devices, PCs and Macs, and Internet-ready TVs – and file formats for sending videos continue to proliferate.

“Every time I think the world is starting to get simpler, something like the iPad comes out and makes things a lot more complex,” said Marty Roberts, thePlatform’s vice president of sales and marketing. “I think our customers are in a challenging position. The consumer expectation is to provide video on all of these different screens, and the challenge is how do we actually meet that in a way that is complementary to the existing business today, in a way that is secure for the media rights holders, and in a way that actually provides a good experience on each one of those devices or environment? There’s lots of work to do.”

While Comcast-owned thePlatform has branched out to work with over-thetop providers, its core strength is being able to optimize the video-viewing experience for all of the DRMs on the market by making sure the encoding profiles are set up for each customer’s service.

“We’ve architected our system to understanding that it’s going to be a multiple DRM world because different devices have different capabilities for decrypting and protecting content,” Roberts said.

Marty RobertsDigital rights management is the newworld equivalent of conditional access that cable operators have used for years. Paired with an authentication system, DRM makes sure the right content goes to the correct viewer while upholding the cable operator or content provider’s licensing agreements.

The problem right now is that different devices are coming with their own DRM. While thePlatform can drill down to each iteration of DRM on various devices, other cable operators need to sort through a grab bag of choices and decide what they want to support in the near term.

Canadian cable operator Videotron launched its own TV Everywhere Web portal, called illicoweb.tv, in June and is currently using two DRMs in order to support the broadcasting of TV shows over the Internet, as well as movies from major studios.

“It’s an evolution at this point,” said Manon Brouillette, Videotron’s executive vice president of strategy and market development. “It’s exhausting to a certain point because every supplier has their own DRM on the market, so basically what we have to do is to make sure we respond to their expectations to access the content.

“My point of view on that is that within a couple of months or a year, there will be a DRM that is accepted across all of the suppliers. As it stands now, there are so many costs over DRM and over digitalizing content for different platforms that we are very concerned about it.”

Videotron is working on a content messaging system (CMS) to go with its content delivery network, the latter of which is via a partnership with Vantrix, in order to cut through the complexities of offering content across the Internet and to wireless devices. The end goal, according to Brouillette, is to deliver the content at a lower cost with the best quality for each piece of video content.

Roberts said that while there are mobile companies that have CDNs that were optimized for mobile delivery, the advance in standard CDN networks, such as ones by Limelight or Akamai, can reach mobile devices with the same quality of service as the specialized CDNs.

Shaw also launched its TV Everywhere portal in June with its own VOD player. Shaw elected to initially support delivery of its Internet content to PC, Mac and Linux environments with Flash as its DRM. As it turns out, Shaw’s application also works with Androidbased phones, even though it wasn’t initially targeted for that environment. Shaw is also working on sending content to iPhones, as well as enabling live content to different devices within a year.

Dennis SteigerDennis Steiger, Shaw’s vice president of engineering, said his company is currently offering SD content but will add HD videos very soon, as well as user-generated content down the road. Shaw is using existing billing systems with its onscreen VOD ordering system on its Web portal, which allows its subscribers to search the VOD library online.

While Shaw’s TV Everywhere service is currently only available within its own footprint, Videotron gives access to its Web portal across Canada, and even out of the country where it has licensing agreements in place. Both Canadian cable operators are using their respective Web portals as the jumping-off point for offering converged services across whatever platform or device their customers choose to use. Both also plan to augment the delivery of video to their customers by launching their own wireless networks.

“For our customers, the only way of delivering this experience was by doing it inhouse because it is a custom environment,” Steiger said. “It’s part of a much bigger strategy to converge all of our product lines so that we can bring telecom, Internet and video together in a way that really works for the customer. We didn’t really feel we could do that with a third party, so we took the approach of developing it in-house.

“Because a lot of this is IPtype technology, the development is a lot simpler than, say, in an historical digital cable environment. It was definitely the route to take for us to do it in-house.”

Steiger said that the various industries were moving toward a common platform, such as HTML5, for all devices, but thePlatform’s Roberts said the current version of HTML5 has some limitations on Android devices, namely that there’s not a “back button” for video, but that should be fixed with the release of Android 2.2 sometime this summer. The new version will include a Flash client for a better playback experience.

Shaw Web Portal

Widevine CEO Brian Baker said the key to any DRM is device ubiquity – the ability to support all of the devices that cable operator customers want to receive their content on. Working with its own video optimization and DRM offerings, Baker said Widevine has the bases covered.

“There’s a broad universe of different retail devices from PCs and Macs to mobile phones like the iPhone or mobile devices like the iPad, as well as an increasing number of operators that are looking at how they can deliver Internet content directly to Internet-connected Blu-ray players, TV sets and gaming consoles,” Baker said. “What is unique about Widevine is our breadth of supported devices. We enable the service provider, whether it's cable, telco, satellite or overthe-top, to reach the largest number of eyeballs with one solution. We think that’s compelling.”

APP OR DOWNLOAD?
Shaw’s Steiger said that while the company’s content can be viewed from the Web portal on PCs, a more likely scenario for iPhones or Android devices would be downloading apps that connect to its CDN.

“I think the app experience is a great experience,” he said. “It really simplifies the complexity of the Web, and it’s gaining an immense amount of traction in the consumer space. If there’s one thing that apps have brought us it’s simpler programs that are easier to use.

“We’re going to go to both places. We’re going to give you the full high-end multimedia experience on your PC and a simple, easy-to-use one on a handheld. The important part for us is that they’re watching Shaw, whether it’s on a laptop or digital cable box.”

ANYWHERE, ANY DEVICE – WHEN?
So when will a cable subscriber be able to watch the World Series on his or her TV and then resume viewing in a taxicab on the way to the airport? Depends on who you ask.

ThePlatform’s Roberts said that kind of service isn’t something that service providers are clamoring for right now. Roberts said there needs to be a bridge between what a customer is watching on TV and what they will resume watching in a mobile or online environment. One area that could contribute to the eventual seamless viewing experience is Start Over or Catch Up technologies, which keep track of when subscribers view content, but they would need to be integrated with the online environment.

“Ultimately, what it involves is enhancing the identity system that sits with the operator to not only track you and your log-in and what channels you subscribe to, but as you’re watching a particular program and you pause, it also has to track that paused program at that time,” he said. “Technically, it’s possible but hasn’t come up in terms of being a top priority for the roadmap.”

Ericsson has also been showing a proof of concept model, which it’s calling "Multi-Platform TV,” that goes across the multiple platforms by using its existing OpenStream, AdPoint and WatchPoint CMS products. Michael Adams, Ericsson’s vice president of software strategy, said the Ericsson platform operates on the control plane to tie the PC, TV and mobile elements together, including policy management to ensure there’s enough bandwidth for the video content to be delivered.

“The approach we’re taking is bookmarks that keep your place from one device to another,” Adams said. “We’ve demonstrated the Multi-Platform TV approach at several shows, and it always gets a tremendous response. The first thing was to get access to TV Everywhere 1.0; this would be the next step in making TV Everywhere seamless across multiple platforms.”

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