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HTML5 and cloud-based UIs – a reality check

Thu, 07/25/2013 - 3:04pm
Robin Wilson

There’s hardly a discussion held today on user interfaces (UI) that does not expound on the wonders of HTML5 as their core building block. And similarly, no future TV delivery platform is fashionable unless it has a cloud-based component. Does this mean a UI deployment that harnesses both the power of HTML5 and the cloud constitute the ultimate in future proof, fashionable and flexible technology? The short answer is yes, but there are some important caveats in what advantages HTML5 and cloud technologies really provide and a great deal of hype surrounding the subject.

HTML5 is a huge collection of standards managed by W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium. These standards include HTML (hypertext markup language) — the markup language used by Web applications; JavaScript, a scripting language; DOM (Document Object Model) representing how JavaScript manipulates HTML elements; and CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) — a language used to describe the look and formatting of a document.

For set-top box applications, HTML5 and the standards mentioned above are all very useful. They allow a high degree of “write once, use many times,” as the look and feel of the UI and the business logic components can be easily transferred between diverse devices like set-top boxes and tablets. Where the hype starts to creep in is in underestimating the huge scope of all the other components needed to provide a quality TV experience. These include functions and drivers to deal with the real world of security, disk management, and tuner control. Whether the set-top box application is based on OCAP (rebranded tru2way or tru2way RDK) or a HTML5 stack, the underpinnings to drive the set-top box or gateway resources below the UI layer are vast. In fact, in our own stack, the HTML5 rendering engine represents approximately 1 percent of the source code!

For software apps that run on tablets, the contrast may not be as great but it is still significant. While video may play natively in an HTML5 browser, adaptive streaming does not. Neither do security components for high value content. W3C is off working on extensions to fix these omissions, but they may be years away.

Let’s now turn to the cloud aspects of the UI and first of all the definition of a “cloud” (and this is where the hype really begins.) Many people think of a cloud as a hosted data center running virtualized servers. That is probably the most accurate definition. However, if you have ever visited a data center, it is a rather underwhelming collection of 19-inch racks and servers. So the “cloud” is really a conceptual idea for the software that runs on these 19-inch racks. What is cloud to someone might be a 19-inch rack to others.

To return to the UI and HTML5 focus, the meaning of cloud is a remote server hosting some or all of the HTML5 UI elements. In reality the cloud server could just as easily be in the cable operator’s own rack space. Call it cloud-based if you want to be fashionable, or outsourced if you want to pay for it as a service rather than run it yourself.

While locating all of the “Web servers” that supply the HTML5 elements in the cloud may be in style these days, it may not be optimal for a quick and responsive UI on a relatively low powered set-top box. The optimum solution likely “serves” some of the UI locally from within the set-top box, such as UI elements that change rarely like the overall framework and frequently used design elements like logos, and dynamic content from the cloud. While this may make instant upgrades to the overall look and feel a little more challenging via downloads, the reality is that the processor performance and latency of an entirely cloud connected set-top box may not be up to that expected by customers.

The term “cloudwashing” is sometimes used to describe applications where the cloud aspects are exaggerated for marketing purposes. HTML5 and cloud-based services are powerful advancements, however we must not lose sight of the deep technology stack under the “building ground floor” that enables a complete set-top box solution. A digital TV system needs to be optimized based on solid design principles and not hype. After all, services running on 19-inch racks are not made of condensed water vapor.

Next month Chris Hock, senior vice president, product management and marketing for BlackArrow, will write about how the rollout of IP infrastructures will affect traditional cable business models.

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