As the evolution of technology unfolds and continues to deliver unprecedented new user experiences across multiple platforms and devices, content and video services providers face myriad choices and competitive pressures. It is widely believed that the top five issues include: set-top device limitations, limited user interface options, back-end integration problems for varying systems, easily implemented interactive applications and the desired transition to cloud-based alternatives.

Set-top devices have come a long way during the past few decades but their limitations still inhibit innovation. The ability to provide such new services as HD and PVR has been a wonderful achievement. Such hardware can be made to be quite capable and is an industry-wide strength in many respects.

As a group, the industry’s best opportunity for future improvements within the business-model parameters is in optimizing the supporting software; and in developing robust, efficient software-based applications and services to maximize performance and extend capabilities. The integration of powerful and efficient middleware “layers” into the hardware ecosystem can increase available options dramatically for new, high-performance applications and services – without incurring crippling capital investments.

The goal of any user interface is to get to the desired content more easily and more quickly. However, the limitations traditionally imposed by set-tops and legacy EPGs can discourage innovation.

What To Do?

Cloud-based UIs surely are one way of overcoming the limitations but they still are evolving. Creating interactive menus and more efficient video on demand (VOD) clients also is an alternative to the status quo. End users are conditioned by handheld devices to expect high performance, impressive graphics and easy navigation; they don’t understand why they can’t have it on their TVs.

With current advancements, unknown several years ago, the TV experience need not be sub-par. HTML5 on appropriate devices and new EPG formats can enliven the user experience and offer options that, until today, were thought to be impossible. Also, efficient middleware options can provide interactive applications and menus to enhance content discovery and navigation.

As new services are born and the supporting infrastructures fall into place, there is an increasing need for these back-end systems to communicate well together in the overall ecosystem. As in all things, this is the key to success. It is expensive to require that these systems be forcibly rewritten in a different protocol than originally provided.

With recent breakthroughs in server and software technology, disparate backends are integrated into the overall environment with data-stream-transformation technology, allowing data and content from any source to be transformed into an acceptable format at the receiving end. This new breed of carrier-class, MSO-centric enterprise service bus (ESB) provides an abstracted service and processing layer that is both backend- and client-agnostic.

Applications, utilities and services can be cross-leveraged simultaneously by various, disparate client devices and subsystems. Applications and services can be integrated by the ESB, and numerous sub-systems can leverage a multitude of core utilities from a single source. From a business perspective, the desired capabilities of advanced advertising, EBIF, t-commerce, billing, VOD, multi-screen convergence and numerous others can be delivered expeditiously under a risk-averse and cost-contained model.

Make It Interactive

The concept of interactivity has been nibbling at the edges of the video-services business for a decade and maybe longer. With a competitive strategic role, an emerging viable business model and an efficient process to deployment, interactivity now is finding its legs. This term is tough to define and means different things to different people; one would be wise to be most specific in defining the expectations and the desired outcome.

The good news: A variety of tools ranging from EBIF to a full-scale, middleware-based interactive platform are available now. One size does not fit all; the choice of approach should be determined entirely by the desired goal. While many are curious about EBIF and quite a few set-tops are EBIF-enabled, there still are precious few opportunities to see interactive experiences.

A handful of those that have deployed EBIF are realizing its limitations and are augmenting its features with more inclusive functionality and a richer user experience, including advanced advertising and social-media applications.

The New Servers

Moving functions to the cloud today is entrenched as reality; servers now can communicate with set-top devices as well as with all the additional navigation and viewing devices. It is relatively inexpensive when compared to the other options to provide rich content-based or additional interactive abilities, and it is proved to be quicker and more easily deployed that commonly thought.

A light client deployed on a set-top box communicating with powerful servers and software can provide the ability to send emails to and from the TV; to provide customized weather, stock and security alerts and news alerts to any device; and to provide remote PVR functions. Not only are the servers fast and capable but the option to generate more breadth and depth of content provides options not usually imagined by mid-sized to smaller service providers.

Today’s server technology products for video providers should have core functionality provided as the base for the overall communication and processing functions, for example: data-stream transformation. Additional modules should be available to provide such specific functions as compression and aggregation, command and control, recommendation functions, EBIF messaging, execution of business rules and mobile integration. Additional modules can be developed as needed for specific functions.

The ability to integrate third-party content, including that from the Internet, is remarkable, considering past limitations. This evolution truly enables multi-screen convergence where this previously was thought to be limited to the “big guys.”

It is important for these solutions to operate in open, standards-based environments and to provide expandable architecture, horizontal scalability and fault tolerance via clustering.
Past experience has shown that the tradeoff between cost and function in set-top devices was based on the inability to monetize additional costly functions through enough new business.

This business equation now has changed with the ability to accomplish a lot more of the desired functions without the cost of additional hardware that provides a meager return on investment. The server/client solutions are cost-effective, scalable and efficient at a much lower initial investment that can be extensible. Combinations of these factors produce even more dramatic results that can position any service provider solidly against many competitive threats. Set-top software optimizations combined with server solutions are providing unimagined improvement in performance and user experience.

A new UI and faster navigation along with an enhanced viewer experience with bound applications for popular programming are distinct competitive advantages. These upgrades situate any provider of video services and content well for the growing expectations from customers who are exposed to PCs, tablets, smartphones and smart TVs.

Changes

As new devices are enabled to control the viewing functions, options expand to provide the best-possible user experience.

Individuals with two devices in the home today can be expected to have five or six tomorrow. Users will expect their smartphones, tablet and laptops, for example, to be integrated seamlessly and available for use as needed. It will become commonplace to look up programming on a tablet or smartphone, and to use that device to tune to the desired programming with little effort.

The industry is poised to exceed user expectations and to usher in a new era of connectivity and convergence under a best-of-breed model, offered from a single-source provider.

Brandon Brown, Zodiac Interactive, 516/619-3170.

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