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February 7, 2013
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The cloud UI could improve Connected TV prospects

Rendering the User Interface in the cloud could solve some of the biggest challenges facing platform operators in the multi-screen TV era, making it realistic to present an identical UI on every device without a herculean effort to develop and then maintain apps for different set-top boxes and connected TV devices. The roll-out of cloud UI by Dutch cable operator Ziggo and the ongoing trial of the concept by US cable giant Comcast have highlighted the benefits as well as the growing industry interest.

Both those deployments use the CloudTV platform from ActiveVideo and this company can rightly claim to be a pioneer for the cloud rendered UI. In simple terms, a platform operator develops their UI in HTML5, the UI is hosted in a server, probably at a headend, client devices (set-top boxes, CI+ modules or connected TV devices) send remote control requests to the server, the server renders the UI image required and turns it into an MPEG stream and this is delivered to the device as if it were a video stream. Thus the client device is effectively decoding rather than rendering the UI. The UI is treated like a channel, taking as little as 1.5Mbps of dedicated bandwidth.

Because there is no rendering in devices, operators only have to design the UI once, rather than create multiple versions to comply with how different vendors and devices render content locally. This has implications across the television market but there is clear potential for cloud UIs to make it easier to develop operator apps for use across different connected TV platforms.

Today, one of the biggest challenges for Connected TV is the fragmentation of the apps development environment. You need to work with different SDKs for different CE manufacturers and apps may even need to be adapted from one year to the next, even with the same manufacturer. Though the UI is only one function of an app, it is an important one, and enabling guaranteed uniformity in an operator’s look-and-feel will simplify the task. The common CloudTV client standardizes local elements such as video handoff and tuning to live channels and also supports overlays that are rendered in the cloud but overlaid on the client. This maximizes the level of integration with live video and is said to boost bandwidth efficiency.

ActiveVideo believes the CloudTV platform can deliver the promised land when it comes to apps, namely ‘write-once, deploy-everywhere’. It also enables future-proofing, as the process of generating and rendering the UI is untouched between different generations of connected TV device. The same applies to set-top boxes, whether operator-approved and sold via retail or operator supplied. Whatever the device, less time is needed verifying how the UI behaves, reducing the cost of Quality Assurance.

ActiveVideo claims that the CloudTV platform can cut app time-to-market by as much as 80% for connected device manufacturers and virtual service providers, as well as cable and IPTV operators. This has implications for ‘service velocity’ in an increasingly competitive market. It also argues that operators can deploy cheaper set-top boxes if they use a cloud UI, since it is the increasingly sophisticated User Interfaces that demand better processing speeds and which are therefore driving up the cost of devices.

When it comes to the Connected TV market, Ronald Brockmann, Managing Director Europe at ActiveVideo, believes there is pressure on CE manufacturers to take a different approach to apps development. “People have developed apps for Connected TV, dipped their toes in the water but seen a model that cannot scale. We think cloud-based rendering is the only way you can ensure the user experiences will execute in a flawless and identical fashion across different makes and models, especially over the typical television lifecycle.”

Philips-brand Net TVs already work with the ActiveVideo CloudTV platform in the U.S. thanks to a partnership with Funai Electronics. Net2TV, a virtual service provider offering ad-supported, cloud-based programming services to Smart TVs, is another user in this market. The company views Connected TV as a natural market for cloud UIs.

While Cloud UI could make life easier when delivering content to multiple different connected TV devices, it is already having an impact on established operator delivery models. Ziggo became the first major European service provider to harness CloudTV last year to provide a User Interface for its VOD service on existing set-top boxes, covering navigation and guide functionality. Comcast is using the platform in an enhanced VOD user experience trial in Chattanooga, TN, while other cable operators, Cablevision and Time Warner (in Hawaii), are already users.

In the traditional delivery environment, one of the key benefits of the Cloud UI is that you can introduce interactive services to one-way set-top boxes, which means new services like VOD can be offered universally. It even becomes possible to use companion screen devices, like smartphones or tablets, to provide the return path interactivity and make requests to a server that then renders and delivers the UI to the television screen. Given the increasing integration of television and companion, and the use of companions for content discovery, this model holds some promise when dealing with legacy STBs. If operators want to combine STBs, CI+ modules and Smart TVs, they can do so; the UI is developed once, whatever the mix.

In January, ActiveVideo announced the CloudTV Access developer programme, an initiative to hasten the use of advanced HTML5 user experiences. “Developing on the CloudTV platform is easy, but the programme is designed to help developers who are experienced with HTML5 development on the Web make the transition to television,” says Brockmann. The programme provides developers with the CloudTV tools and resources needed to create cross-platform HTML5 user experiences that can be used on any devices.

“It is very likely that many services and much of the code they have already created to date will be useful on the CloudTV platform,” adds Brockmann. “The CloudTV platform conforms to web standards, so developers will feel right at home developing applications. The idea of managing a single code base is very appealing to developers and content owners.”

Developers do not have to be part of the programme to work with CloudTV but it provides an optional level of support and services if they want it. Developers do not have to work with ActiveVideo, either; they can work directly with any operator or manufacturer who has licensed the CloudTV platform.