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Life beyond today’s set-top box

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The legacy pay TV set top box has defied predictions of its imminent death for almost a decade, but now at last the real end is in sight. The inevitable cannot be postponed any longer and now industry trends both in the cloud and in the home are conspiring to effect a revolution change in video delivery and consumption.  With Gigabit broadband being widely available, everything is going IP and moving into the cloud, taking away the set top’s traditional core TV functionality including content storage and UI (User Interface) rendering, which will now reside at the operator’s head end.

But this does not mean we are at the end of dedicated operator hardware in the home, which is where some confusion has arisen and why some still deny that the set-top is dying. It can almost seem like splitting hairs but the point is that in future we will still need a box to control the physical aspects of the user experience as the world continues its procession towards Wi-Fi as the predominate home networking medium. Operators will also continue to seek control and differentiation and that will be done through apps running at least in part on some device in the home to control devices both for media consumption and increasingly around the Internet of Things (IoT). And the video still has to be rendered onto the big screen.

There will obviously be a broadband gateway in the premises and these will have to be wireless on the home networking side, plus optionally supporting MoCA or Powerline in corner cases. There will then be some form of adapter to connect large screens and here two models are emerging. One promoted by the major operators like Sky, Comcast and Orange involves a dedicated box running their own dedicated software stack, through which they provide their own service flavor even though core functions are extracted into the cloud. This then can be seen as a direct set-top box replacement, but is a much lower cost piece of hardware, essentially taking Wi-Fi in and HDMI out to the TV.

The other scenario employed mostly by smaller operators as well as content or media companies going straight to the consumer is similar in that it involves a software stack and pumps out HDMI signals after taking Wi-Fi in, but in this case the stack will often run on a generic Android device. Any third party can then come up with an app and in principle deliver content via the device.

Under both scenarios the traditional set-top functions are gone and the box just renders the content, but with high wireless performance increasingly critical in either case. This represents a sea change for the industry and although it does not spell doom for traditional operators who are actually well placed to exploit these trends, it does mean the writing is on the wall for some of the technologies originally proposed to usher in the era of all-IP for pay TV operators and broadcasters.

One such technology is HbbTV, originally a Franco/German initiative for interactive TV, which gained initial success as a hybrid platform combining OTT and broadcast content in a single monolithic box. The tide has now turned against HbbTV because it does not work well for OTT delivery to devices other than the big screen and does not embrace the TV Everywhere models of operators. These models involve apps developed by operators or third parties, as well as personalized UIs, rather than monolithic hybrid platforms.

At the same time the big pure play OTT operators like HBO and Netflix have developed their own apps and UIs which naturally must run on both Android and iOS to reach their subscribers’ smart phones and tablets and they want these same adapters to reach large screens directly. So while HbbTV evolved almost as a work around for the legacy set top box, the world is now looking in towards the traditional TV from the OTT side and wants lighter adapters to reach the big screen along with more agile platforms for developing innovative apps.

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