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A compelling multi-screen user experience

Tue, 11/20/2012 - 7:37pm
Kirk Edwardson, director of marketing at Espial

Power the experience with open IP middleware.

Managed service providers, telcos, MSOs and satellite broadcasters alike are facing intense competition from over-the-top service providers such as Netflix and Hulu. These new market entrants are rapidly building their subscriber base by providing premium video and video-on-demand services on any device, including mobile phones, tablets and PCs, threatening incumbent operators’ customer bases and revenues.

To respond to these challenges, managed service providers must implement an open multi-screen service delivery platform, enabling full control over the multi-screen user experience. This allows operators to provide customers with the anytime, anywhere, any device experience they are rapidly becoming accustomed to. This article will examine new technologies essential to an open middleware system and how to build a successful multi-screen service.

Evolve with the service
There are several advantages to deploying an open service delivery platform, one of which is the ability to easily integrate the middleware with other best-of-breed systems within the video infrastructure – including VOD, conditional access (CA), encoding and digital rights management (DRM) systems – through the use of open interfaces and development toolkits.

This is extremely beneficial for a service provider that is interested in delivering multi-screen content to different viewing devices, as well as to set-top boxes. It allows them to work with incumbent systems for STB-based services, while using another system for multi-screen devices like smartphones and tablets. This approach enables an operator to choose VOD, DRM and other equipment that best matches their needs, rather than face the limitations of a closed middleware platform incapable of working in multi-vendor scenarios.

By harnessing the power and flexibility of a single, unified, open middleware platform, a service provider can change and add equipment to the video ecosystem as business and technology requirements evolve. As a result, they’re able to manage multiple VOD, CA, encoding, DRM and other video headend equipment, streamlining the deployment of multi-screen services (see Figure 1).

Espial Figure 1
In addition to multi-vendor support, some operators may also look to deploy multi-networking solutions that allow them to support multiple video networks on a single platform across satellite, cable, terrestrial, IPTV and hybrid managed services. With a powerful multi-network solution, they can leverage the service delivery platform to expand their services without requiring a substantial infrastructure investment. Lastly, this open and multi-vendor, multi-network platform must be highly scalable to allow service providers cost-effective delivery of multi-screen services to millions of subscribers.

An open platform also simplifies the integration of new systems in emerging technologies, such as enhanced advertising and recommendation engines. With an open middleware platform that easily supports future technology advancements, an operator can continue to evolve the services into a compelling and differentiated offering in a highly competitive multi-screen marketplace.

Open standards
The second advantage of an open back office IP middleware platform is that it enables service providers to take advantage of new client device standards, such as HTML5 and CSS 3D, to deliver a more powerful and immersive multi-screen user experience.

HTML5 is an open Web standard that is being widely adopted by all connected devices, including Smart TVs, smartphones, tablets and STBs. Through a wide array of capabilities, HTML5 allows service providers to leverage a powerful, universal authoring platform that ensures a consistent and interactive user experience across all multi-screen devices. Additionally, because HTML5 is an open standard, it eliminates the need for service providers to own a specialized, proprietary user interface development tool.

Prior to using a browser technology like HTML5 for media delivery, content developers were required to write and maintain a separate native application for every operating system, screen size and environment. This process was time-consuming and costly: Each connected device required the native application to be ported and tailored to account for the changes in screen size, screen resolution and other physical factors – like the chipset being utilized.

HTML5 standardizes audio, video and a wide range of other sophisticated technologies into the browser, and because the browser technology is software-based, the content is abstracted from the hardware. Therefore, developers can launch interactive applications and complex graphics across a wide range of connected devices without knowing the physical characteristics of the target device. When authored in HTML5 and hosted in the cloud, applications can be written once and deployed to many different devices, reaching a greater audience.

An HTML5-based browser supports high-speed animation and sophisticated visual effects, enabling content providers to deploy more engaging Web applications onto multi-screen devices. One of the technologies supported by HTML5 is CSS 3D. It allows content developers to create 3-D-like graphics and deliver them across any viewing platform. Through another technology called WebGL, developers can create content similar to what is available on today’s 3-D video games, including eye-catching animations with shading, smooth textures and real-time responsiveness to user input.

Streamlined experience
Once content providers begin deploying services to multiple viewing platforms across the open Internet, they are faced with a whole new set of challenges that didn’t exist in traditional content delivery to set-top boxes, including the need for powerful content security, place-shifting and subscriber self-management technologies. An open middleware platform must support all of these technologies, streamlining content delivery across multiple devices.

Some of today’s more sophisticated open middleware platforms include robust content security, giving operators the power to control programming based on a user’s location and deliver geographically relevant information to any mobile device.

Delivering video services over the open Internet gives consumers the ability to potentially share their accounts with friends. To counter this, video service providers require a service delivery platform with advanced content security capabilities, like content leasing. Using a feature like content leasing, service providers can control the number of simultaneous viewers of a movie rental while enabling the content to be viewed on second household screens – like an iPad, for example. This eliminates the threat of content being paid for once and shared amongst endless viewers, maximizing a content provider’s revenue potential.

Delivery of video services over the open Internet presents other security challenges, as well. For example, content rights are based on a strict geographic licensing arrangement. In a simplistic content delivery environment, where content is sent to an in-home TV or set-top box, service providers were easily able to meet their content licensing arrangements. In today’s multi-screen world, with a growing number of mobile devices in the hands of consumers, service providers must ensure that content isn’t being viewed outside of the area where the provider has secured rights to that content. If a subscriber travels outside of their home country, for example, an operator requires a service delivery platform that employs geo-blocking to restrict access beyond the agreed region.

Another powerful functionality of an open middleware platform is place-shifting, which enables users to set up account rights across multiple devices, including set-top boxes, in order to optimize content for different household users. Through place-shifting, a subscriber can begin watching a movie on a smartphone while on their commute home from work, and then continue watching the same movie at home on a Smart TV, without losing their place in the movie. Subscribers have the flexibility to pause, stop and continue viewing video content; watch movie and TV show trailers; purchase VOD content; tag content as “favorite” content; and much more – all while maintaining a consistent user experience from one device to another.

As service providers begin delivering content across the open Internet to a plethora of devices, subscriber self-management also becomes increasingly more important (see Figure 2). Historically, a provider operated under a content delivery scheme that delivered service to a single household device and location. Subscriber self-management was not an important feature under this setup, because subscribers were only watching television content on one device: the TV. But in today’s multi-screen world, it is essential that service providers embrace an open middleware platform that supports multiple users and devices.

Espial Figure 2
Using an intuitive user interface, subscribers can register all of their household devices and appoint a household administrator, who can efficiently maintain individual preferences across many devices. After setting up the household’s users from a portal, an endless number of devices and user accounts can be managed. Without an effective subscriber management tool, subscribers would be challenged to set up controls for all of their IP-connected devices. For example, if one household consumes television content on 10 different devices, it would be time-consuming and complex to manage all of the devices without a unified subscriber management system.

Subscriber management is also an essential tool for challenging use cases like a family who, for example, watches television content across a broad range of devices, including tablets, netbooks, smartphones and Smart TVs, and wants to set up parental controls to restrict youth from watching violent or expletive content.

The next step
Service providers today have already achieved deployment of multi-screen video services. Their next step is to provide a unified experience across all devices.

Most of today’s multi-screen services are based on a siloed approach rather than a single back office middleware solution. Utilizing a siloed content delivery method, all data for tablet devices is managed on one closed middleware system, while smartphone data is controlled by another closed system, and so on, meaning a service provider cannot offer unique features such as place-shifting and parental controls because they are operating disparate systems that don’t communicate with one another.

Powering multi-screen video services with an open service delivery platform, service providers can choose best-of-breed video equipment and more rapidly deploy value-added multi-screen services with sophisticated functionalities, like place-shifting and parental controls. An open middleware platform also enables immersive 3-D graphics and a level of customization not possible with closed, proprietary technology, enabling operators to deliver video services based on language, region and a variety of other parameters that all add up to a superior quality of experience for end users.

Email: kedwardson@espial.com

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