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Multi-Screen Challenges and Benefits

Fri, 11/04/2011 - 12:41am
Jim Elayan, vice president of marketing at itaas

Do you have all that it takes to be successful?

Over the past year, cable executives have showcased and deployed applications that extend video services to new consumer electronics devices such as tablets, smartphones and connected TVs. Driven by the rise of mobile computing platforms and fierce competition from over-the-top entertainment providers, multi-screen applications offer competitive parity, and perhaps even some advantages to the set-top box-centric world of cable TV. Now is a great time to take stock of the challenges, enablers and benefits of multi-screen application development and plot a course that turns a threat into an opportunity.

With the launch of new consumer services, companies face business and technical challenges that impede time to market and successful deployments. Multi-screen app development for the cable TV industry is no different. Some unique business and technical challenges must be addressed to take advantage of the “appmania” that is sweeping the CE industry.

BUSINESS CHALLENGES
Conflicting business interests often delay deployment in multi-platform applications. Service providers aim to own the customer; device manufacturers want to be bigger players; content providers need to keep affiliates happy while reaching out to consumers.

Everyone wants a share of the profits. But what happens when interests fail to align? For example, do existing carriage deals extend to devices such as tablets? At a time when programming costs are a battleground, extending the reach and value of content vs. access to the consumer makes multi-screen mobile content both compelling and threatening. No doubt, the lawyers will work out these challenges!

As an example, selecting the correct CE platform is integral to any plan for success. Is a smartphone application better than a tablet application for viewing images or entering text? Is the objective to increase VOD consumption? Then a tablet might be a better choice than a phone, despite the number of deployed devices. The best choice may lie in aligning the purpose of the application with the demographics of the target audience more than by the hype associated with a particular platform.

Application Network


TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGES

A simple onscreen graphic, or the icon on a second- or third-screen device, masks an underlying complexity. It’s not “just an icon.”

Depending on the use case, an application can interact with an expansive range of technologies and data sources, including:

  • Set-top middleware and operating systems (OS)
  • DVR controls
  • VOD clients
  • Video distribution networks and architecture
  • Provisioning, authentication and billing systems
  • Content management systems (CMSs)
  • Content delivery networks (CDNs)
  • Program guides
  • Content metadata
  • Digital rights management (DRM)
  • Database development and deployment
  • IT infrastructure and device networking protocols
  • Translation and messaging servers
  • Website development and data architecture
  • CE device software.

An additional challenge is our legacy. How do we bridge the “old world” with the “new world”? Unlike CE devices that are often considered “disposable,” set-tops have at least a seven-year lifecycle. These platforms are working well and generating significant income but create a technology barrier. The limitations of legacy set-tops were for the most part the result of tradeoffs in the ever-raging battle of cost vs. performance. But the increasing performance of computing and mobile platforms is widening the gap between the capabilities of a set-top and the expectations of consumers. Multi-screen applications offer a chance to leverage both legacy and mobile platforms but require a complex network of software and servers to tie it all together.

Skilled developers with deep knowledge of both old and new technologies can navigate the systems and servers to build innovative multi-screen apps. This process is facilitated by the capabilities of the technologies that serve as enablers.

THE ENABLERS
Over the past few years, the developments in smartphones and mobile computing overlapped the development and deployment of new technology standards for interactivity in the cable TV industry. As with many technology breakthroughs, the result may have been an unintended one. It is doubtful that developers of tablet computers thought of controlling set-top boxes any more than those developing platforms for interactive advertising thought of using a smartphone to tune a set-top box. But, regardless, several platforms emerged that provided the impetus for connecting the mobile computing world with the TV experience.

OCAP (tru2way)
While OCAP’s customer-facing tru2way brand and retail mission have seemingly stalled, MSOs that deployed the software are still widely leveraging its capabilities.

In addition to the clear benefits in graphics and performance, OCAP-enabled boxes generally have better data throughput and external connectivity than other platforms. This technology is well positioned at some multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to serve as a bridge to emerging technology deployments, while providing some degree of competitive parity in systems fighting for the same subscriber base. The primary limitation is in the current size of the deployed footprint.

Search & Discovery iPadEBIF
EBIF is an effective multi-screen enabler with a larger install base that uses extensible markup language (XML) as application source code. EBIF is lightweight software and can execute binary code on new and old set-tops, albeit with graphical limitations. While simple apps may be relatively self-contained, the most interesting and valuable ones are those that reach out to the “world beyond” for assets and information.

The EBIF platform can facilitate communication with handhelds, including tablets and smartphones via back office connectivity. The latest version of EBIF (IO6) features additional interactive television and business-related functionalities, including support for unbound applications, time-shifted apps, addressability and other enhancements.

In fact, EBIF is the “secret sauce” that has enabled many of the tablet-based platforms for set-top control in the market today. A small, unbound EBIF application is the control mechanism for the tuning commands issued on the tablet. This is a far cry from the original intent of interactive advertising.

But despite all of the positives of EBIF, the deployments are proceeding more slowly than originally envisioned, and there have been some disruptive effects from the abundance of user agents and development approaches that require MVPDs with a variety of technology approaches to use multiple platforms and additional testing to create the best consumer experience. Nonetheless, EBIF is already the most widely deployed interactive platform and will offer significant multi-screen app advantages.

The cloud
The use of cloud-based servers for data and authentication makes new platforms accessible to a wide range of consumers and greatly improves the cost models associated with server deployments. One database in the cloud can do what once required dozens of local servers.

An app may require servers to conduct searches, collate data from multiple locations, and interpret and translate data in order to talk to the set-top. The cloud provides the efficiency and access to data that makes multi-screen viable.

CE devices
As an enabler, the ubiquity of the smartphone and tablet technology cemented the future of multi-screen apps. The installed base of 18 million consumer-funded, Web-enabled devices (tablet computers) offer access to greater processing power and graphics capabilities than any set-top. The fact that these devices stay within arm’s reach makes them an ideal second screen or control screen. Plus, the keyboard and text-entry capabilities add the “icing” that a standard set-top remote cannot provide.

BENEFITS
Deploying multi-screen apps can yield real benefits, such as providing choice for the best platform available; competitive differentiation; and a progressive, high-tech, competitive image to consumers.

But, more importantly, it can provide:

  • Increased revenue
  • Better quality of experience (QoE)
  • Service upgrades and ad opportunities
  • Reduced operational costs
  • Extended life of deployed set-tops.

FIVE CATEGORIES OF MULTI-SCREEN APP FEATURES
Search and discovery

Perhaps the biggest barrier to usage of current on-demand offerings is the lack of compelling search and discovery.

Content discovery requires several components:

  • The ability to sort a large library of data to suit individual consumer requirements
  • The ability to display results in a graphically appealing way and provide descriptions and ratings that give enough information to make the choice compelling
  • A keyboard to allow the consumer to enter search criteria easily.

These scenarios require accessing databases outside of the guide, a task well suited for a tablet. In a world of on-demand choices approaching 100,000 shows, the need for a better UI and search has become acute. Leveraging the power and flexibility of more than 100 million deployed smartphones and tablets is a clear choice.

Marketing and communications
Multi-screen apps add a wide range of communications capabilities, such as texting, email and onscreen messaging. These capabilities can drive increased revenues.

Social networking
These apps have populated nearly every interactive CE device. With Facebook’s global user base approaching 800 million, social networking cannot be ignored. Not everyone will want to update their status on a family TV, but recommendations (“like”) make sense, as does using Facebook or Twitter to generate consumer responses and promote upcoming programs and events. Multi-screen applications can tie the world of social networking to the world of TV.

Video streaming
The number of iPad downloads of Netflix and other streaming providers indicate that consumers want this feature. On the MSO side, such apps extend the life of deployed set-tops and potentially reduce the number purchased in the future. However, streaming raises territorial issues. Does a travelling subscriber have access to a VOD library outside of an MSO’s serving area? Geolocation servers can address that case and meet related consumer demand. Perhaps “TV Everywhere” initially means everywhere in your home, but could today’s MSOs become virtual MSOs?

Content synchronization
The use of multi-screen applications brings together content on the TV with related content on a mobile device. This can enhance the impact of advertising, add value to programming and provide an enriched experience for the consumer. Imagine watching a show on TV and commenting with friends or voting on contestants on the second screen.

One emerging technology that may threaten the MSO’s role in synchronizing content is new automatic content recognition (ACR)-capable applications. These can use audio cues to identify programs and sync Web content or ads – pretty compelling, and it can be integrated into an MSO offering.

Although multi-tasking during a “lean back” experience seems counterintuitive for some, it is clearly a trend. As an example, have you recently had a conversation with someone who viewed or responded to a text message or call while you were conversing? Face to face was once sacrosanct communication. If that is no longer the case, then why would the “text generation” preserve the sanctity of only watching TV? They won’t.

CONCLUSION
In a remote control-dominated world, interactive TV applications either enhance regular programming or provide functionality beyond it. With more than 25 million set-tops in the U.S. now EBIF-ready, some apps – targeted ads, in particular – are likely to gain value. But is that enough?

At the same time, another media paradigm has emerged. Consumers now select content outside of the set-top with a mouse click or a swipe on a touchscreen. An app appears as a simple icon, but once opened, it becomes a portal for linear or on-demand video on a multitude of screens.

The benefit seems clear: additional revenue from satisfied consumers who find more content and stay connected longer across multiple screens. But whatever goal is set and whatever benefit is sought, successful multi-platform app deployment calls for both business smarts and a solid bench of technical expertise across a multitude of software, hardware and back office systems. The question your organization should ask is not, “Should we do this?” It’s, “Do you have all that it takes?”

Email: jim.elayan@itaas.com

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