By Ved Sen & Geof Todd
What is “Television”? Is it a device? A type of content? A broadcasting methodology? A set of audiovisual technologies? A home-specific viewing experience? Or all of these? Or, to take a deconstructionist approach, is it just a large screen attached to device with tuner and intelligence, for conditional access and data management, (the ultimate ‘thin client’)? Yes, it comes loaded with meanings born of 60 years of broadcasting – technologies, habits, commercial structures and entertainment. But the time is ripe for stripping back all the layers and considering it simply as a screen.
Why? Because we believe that the revolution waiting to happen is the delivery of services over TV. There are many other content specific issues which are playing themselves out as linear TV takes on IPTV and OTT TV, as highlighted in our two previous articles on issues around IPTV and the current shift in the OTT space. But those are all about the little changes and fine-tuning of TV as we know it.
Let’s consider the facts – content is an incredibly difficult business. At one end, you have creative studios struggling to create great content – fortunately creativity is not a zero sum game, so there is always a flow of great new ideas, but from there on, the broadcast distribution is increasingly getting commoditized, platforms are immensely capital intensive plays, advertising is increasingly a winner-takes-all kind of revenue stream. And increasingly with consumers figuring out different ways of getting content, as well as brands managing to reach consumers directly, the evolving role of the content aggregator as an intermediary between brand messages and consumers is much weakened (though Sky might disagree based on their recent profit announcement).
Having said that, we know that established broadcast models will not fall apart in a hurry so traditional, linear, lean back television, fuelled by sports, sitcoms, soaps, live events, news and participation TV will continue to flourish. But what about the challengers? Where is the value for the IPTVs of the world? We’ve already established that IPTV is struggling because it’s trying to be TV and that OTT might just outflank many emerging models. Our view is that there is immense value for IPTV companies to create service delivery infrastructures to revolutionize the TV space.
The OTT-based approach is essentially a more pragmatic attempt to use what exists to deliver what is more feasible and it is also a tacit acknowledgement that Broadband is not a direct alternative to Broadcast; both have their place. However OTT is also likely to suffer from just being seen as ‘the next big thing’, but if you do intend to combine an Open Internet approach with a pre-existing broadcast package, you have the best chance of realising the benefits of the shift to an on-demand world, as the infrastructure is likely to improve in the background over time. Faster access times and higher bandwidths look like offering access to more head end centric/Cloud-based OTT services too. OTT also has the advantage of not requiring as massive an investment as a full IPTV infrastructure and though current encoding schemas may not be of the highest quality, it will benefit from adaptive bit-rate streaming, though here too there is uncertainty over which format will win.
IPTV – An opportunity For Service Centric Models
What is a service centric model? Well simply think of things you currently access on your PC. A simple enough example is train schedules, and travel updates. If you live close to (say) the Hammersmith Tube station, the chances are you will check for delays and disruptions, especially on weekends before starting your journey. Could this information not be available on a TV set? If it was selected as your default station, it could immediately give you a single screen of information outlining delays, closures and other information.
We know what you’re thinking. Why would we do it on TV when it’s already on PCs and Smart Phones? Well, a part of that answer is simple, some 17% people in the UK are 65 or older and this number is growing. Many if not most people of that age are likely to be less comfortable with PCs and smart phones, but highly familiar and comfortable with the TV screen. That’s approximately 11 million people who will be grateful for this information on the TV screen.
In fact, keeping the age distribution in mind, healthcare is another obvious area where services can be provided to the TV set. This can include anything from prescriptions to appointment reminders, and even more targeted messages to individuals from the NHS or from their carers and providers. There are already examples of using sensors around the house and displaying messages on the TV screen for Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia suffers. Simple things such as “the front door is open” and “the kettle is on” are easy messages to deliver via the TV, and obviously useful if the person is watching TV at the time. It is time to shift the ‘Tele’ in Telehealth and Telecare, from the Telephone to the Television
Looking beyond the needs of the elderly, there are definitely other areas where Television screen based delivery could provide a much improved experience. Examples here include video based education or travel related services. Especially when such travel services are aimed at families rather than individuals. Imagine the family booking a holiday but being able to explore video diaries of other travellers or promotional ones of the places they are visiting. Or perhaps being able to upload their own videos and photos from wherever they went and view it on the TV as well as from any other device. Of course, it’s not just the viewing, but then clicking through to the booking environment, that needs to be captured by the service. Of course challenges exist, but surely, this is a significant improvement on Teletext holidays?
Actually in many ways, we’re returning to the world of Teletext but now with richer interfaces, more processing, a better UI and immediate feedback. This immediate feedback is also a potential source of revenue in that it allows the connected-devices to report back immediately, out-manoeuvring the vagaries of the statistical analytics that currently predominate in the TV world. The user interface also needs a lot of thinking, as does the navigation and input devices. But none of them are insurmountable challenges, especially if you hark back to the earliest days of the browsers.
Yet another argument for TV based service delivery is to do with the number of screens at home. You might have smart meters, and home automation systems, and any number of other smart services. But does each service need its own screen? Should it? What would that do to your costs and energy consumption? Could we not start delivering smart services from meters and sensors to existing screens such as TVs? Discrete time or money saving systems have their appeal, but their reach and value are easier to appreciate from your living room chair, as part of a mixed ‘infotainment’ package.
We’ve been talking about teleconferencing for a while now. You can now video-chat on Skype, or on your iPhone, or even on Facebook. Why not on the TV screen? I can see one challenge – on Skype, you only have to show your face, in close up, while on TV you’d be far from the screen. But this is surely a trivial technology problem to allow a camera atop a TV set to zoom.
And the opportunities are limitless – from eGovernment, to T-Commerce and from home automation to extended care services. The fact is that this layer has not been explored at all. Let’s be clear, none of this is easy. Significant investment and marketing will be required, not to mention UI, behavioural research and service design. But we know many of these components have been worked on independently, they just haven’t been brought together – yet.
Why is this a big deal for IPTV companies? Well, for one, they have the managed network which allows them to maintain quality of service in a way that OTT cannot. And second, they have IP enabled networks and IP Connected boxes, which allow them 2 way data transfer, and session management for individual users in a way that linear broadcast can only dream of. This makes IPTV extremely well placed to steal a march on their cousins in becoming service enablers on TV screens and therefore create and occupy this new marketplace, rather than continuously playing second fiddle in the content space.
Given that most IPTV companies have Telecom parents, they are probably also well equipped in the area of service management architectures. They are likely to have direct relationships with consumers, CRM systems, call centres, support environments, billing mechanisms and the application integration (EAI) environments which would allow them to easily integrate 3rd party services. The marginal cost for them will therefore be the front end – building the TV delivery layer. We contend that both the TV and the Telcos hold important places in our lives and that Telcos have until now looked like they had ‘taken the fight’ to the TV platform suppliers, but were not fully content equipped to compete. What is now happening is that the content is spreading laterally through all those broadband-enabled devices in the home, and these are the devices that offer the return path through which the Telco can differentiate.
Of course there are content based services as well. After all, the Guardian contends that the future of connected TVs in Britain is potentially Netflix shaped. But also ready to attack this space are Tesco through BlinkBox, LOVEFiLM with their Amazon owners and other newer services. But equally, it’s now increasingly clear that the hybrid STB under your TV set is just one of many devices being hooked up to the TV which will pull content off cloud (Apple TV, Xbox and PlayStations are just a few examples). Consumers are therefore more comfortable with the versatility of what can be achieved through the TV set.
Apps and widget bars are another way to achieve this, and there is a good chance that this will evolve into a preferred UI paradigm in much the same way that the WIMP shift took the PC to the next level But the underlying architecture is not different. The QWERTY keyboard has its proponents and its critics, as far as the TV screen is concerned. But who knows, perhaps transferring the control to the second screen will allow us to bypass this problem.
And all of this is before we start exploring using the TV as a broadband connected device, to include it as part of the growing P2P network environment and to reach new demographic and technology limited /averse groups. We also contend that even though video is filling up all the available broadband pipes, the return channel nature or the fact that data and comms can co-exist on this network too, have not yet been fully explored.
An important aspect of this opportunity is the fact that the TV does hold Prime position in the majority of living rooms, plus it has the status of being trusted and reliable. So it is worth looking at alternatives to content-based services that may be delivered to and through the TV. In our previous piece on the issues around IPTV, we explored the difficulties of delivering video in a broadcast comparable way, but bandwidths for data including voice services require several orders of magnitude less bandwidth or managed capacity than trying to deliver VoD. This in turn leaves that way open to use the TV as a message centre for new services that are currently delivered and managed through dedicated consoles or other channels.
All of this presupposes that IPTV companies are fundamentally interested in the idea of “creative disruption”. Going down this path will undoubted draw a few failures, but it’s likely that success models will be found and a whole new market will be created. Pioneers wanted!
This is part three of a series of three blogs by the authors.
Originally posted on Videonet
The Problem of IPTV is TV