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ACCESS pushes Netfront browser support for HBBTV, HTML-5 as a solution to smart TV fragmentation

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By Barry Flynn, Contributing Editor

At IBC 2015, ACCESS was demonstrating its NetFront browser, a customised version of which is to be integrated into Europe’s first HBBTV 2.0 platform, Freeview Play, due to launch in October 2015 – initially on Panasonic smart TVs.

The NetFront product supports HTML-5, a key element of the latest version of HbbTV. This is at the core of all modern web browsers and is capable of offering a true-cross platform experience in a multiscreen environment, including for smart TVs.

Robert Guest, ACCESS’s Global Product Director, said the combination of the two technologies addressed the lack of standards in the smart TV sector. Currently, “people have to develop apps for different brands of TV. They are then beholden to the SDKs that come out of those [TVs’] vendors. It makes it a minefield for the app developers,” he said. But now, “you’re getting standardization across multiple devices based on a single run-time engine, if you like. That’s that first step to trying to make things smarter.”

In theory, this could encourage the development of a write-once, run-anywhere content authoring environment, says Guest. “That’s the dream for HTML-5. There’s this term, responsive design, which is all about designing your content so that it will re-size and reshape itself based on the dimensions the display area has. Therefore, in theory, you could absolutely write it so that it works on your high-resolution desktop monitor, then re-scales itself down to live on your TV.”

Freeview Play is the ‘connected’, hybrid version of the UK’s terrestrial DTT platform, Freeview, and deploys the Project Uno software solution, which integrates ACCESS’s NetFront Browser NX HbbTV Profile onto Pixsan’s middleware and OS platform, alongside S&T’s RedKey MHEG-5 engine for backwards compatibility with legacy MHEG apps.

One of the immediate and practical consequences for Freeview of this solution is that it can deliver access to IP-delivered content such as catch-up TV from directly within a ‘backwards-and-forwards’ EPG, a feature already available on the competing connected TV platforms of Sky, Virgin Media and YouView. Previously, smart TV Freeview users were compelled to navigate to the different broadcasters’ own catch-up apps to view their on-demand content.

Guest suggested that through Freeview Play, accessing IP content would now be a much more “fluid” experience, offering more consistency of navigation across different vendors’ smart TVs. However, the Freeview Play UI will not integrate content from non-Freeview channels, meaning that apps for paid-services like Netflix and Amazon will lie outside it – albeit presumably still within a common HTML-5 framework.

Guest notes that previously, HTML-5’s adoption by video service providers had been held up by the fact that it was difficult to support protected content like Netflix’s in a standardized way. “The Netflixes of this world, for example, wouldn’t be on many TVs unless they had their own bespoke apps.”

However, there were now two new sets of APIs being proposed for HTML-5 and promoted by Google, Microsoft and Netflix that “effectively give you a more standardised way of playing back premium [encrypted] content,” he said. Following conversations with Netflix on the Access stand at IBC, Guest said he understood that a final agreement on including these ‘encrypted media extensions’ within the HTML-5 standard was “maybe not quite there yet,” but he remained optimistic that an agreement would be forthcoming.

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