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Android TV has moved into the mainstream of Pay TV set-top box options

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The Android TV operating system, which is effectively an open source middleware, is moving into the mainstream in the Pay TV industry. The signs were there at IBC 2016 when ARRIS announced that it was looking at the possibility of supporting Android and Ericsson said it was going to integrate its MediaFirst user experience with Android TV as well as RDK. One year later, ARRIS was demonstrating its new Android TV based set-top boxes with multiple UX softwares running on top, including MediaFirst.

Meanwhile, Amino was showing off a pure Android TV set-top box and a dual-mode STB that runs multiple UX (user experience) softwares (including Nordija) on top of both Linux and Android TV, giving operators a migration path from the former to the latter. Vendors who supply large as well as small service providers with multiscreen backoffice and user experience (including app) solutions, lined up to back Android TV.

None of this should be viewed as evidence that RDK is losing its lustre as an open source middleware solution – everyone who already backs this option remains firmly behind it. But there is no doubt that Android TV, and particularly Android TV Operator Tier (the version where service providers choose their own UX/UI layer, which has turned out to be a game-changer for Google) is now viewed as the No.1 viable alternative to RDK.

Among the user experience specialists, Accedo announced its support for Android TV with an Operator Tier compliant ‘launcher’ (a UX software that establishes the Pay TV operator experience on an Android TV Operator Tier set-top box). This is now one of the options for the Accedo Studio Pay TV solution, together with an RDK-compliant HTML5 user interface. 3SS says its UX front-end is deploying internationally for projects based on Android TV Operator Tier. The company’s 3READY Android TV client was being demonstrated at IBC.

Espial, a long-time supporter of RDK, and one of the RDK pioneers in terms of deployments for its user experience software (like at NOS and Tele Columbus, both of which use the company’s RDK-based G4 set-top box client) has been talking up Android TV, noting how far this platform has advanced in the last few years – especially in its efforts to accommodate operator expectations. Another important backoffice/client UX/UI vendor, SeaChange International, has been highlighting the trend towards Android TV (the company’s NitroX UI can run on this open source platform and on RDK, among other options).

NAGRA, a long-time UI/UEX leader, showed its (OS-agnostic) OpenTV Platform running on a SmarDTV Android TV set-top box at IBC, providing access to on-demand services in an operator branded environment. (SmarDTV is part of the Kudelski group, like NAGRA). The company believes the Operator Tier version of Android TV answers the needs of Pay TV providers for next-generation STBs, mainly for smaller operators who want to onboard SVOD apps quickly.

The ARRIS support is perhaps the most significant, however. This is a company with a powerful cable heritage, deeply embedded with some of the largest cable operators on earth. And while there is no suggestion that RDK is going out of favour, the company has responded to operator requests and a clear market opportunity, including among service providers who want to make rapid moves into new markets. Its range of UHD HDR set-tops with Android TV are aimed at all market segments: cable, telco, satellite and terrestrial operators.

ARRIS is focusing its efforts around Android TV Operator Tier and Duncan Potter, Senior VP for Global Marketing at ARRIS, says some large operators are looking at Android TV as a way to take advantage of new market opportunities quickly. He thinks the availability of third-party apps interests operators. So does the revenue share from the use of apps in the Google Play Store. This provides a potential new revenue stream from the Pay TV set-top box.

“We have a strong position with big operators and we were not speculating when we did this [introduce Android TV Operator Tier compliant set-top boxes]. We have done it in collaboration with our customers,” Potter notes.

ARRIS lists multiple UX partners for its Android TV boxes including eCreation, Nordija, Accedo, Espial, Zenterio and Ericsson (MediaFirst and Mediaroom). Its IBC demonstrations highlighted a lightning fast programme guide and led you around the home screen where an operator brand experience would begin, then to options including YouTube, ‘Google Play Games’ and ‘Google Play Movies & TV’.

Android TV does have some specific hardware requirements (it is more prescriptive than RDK) and the new ARRIS set-top boxes carry 15,000 DMIPs of horsepower. The company says the demand is for Android TV devices that support UHD and HDR, a fact confirmed by Amino, another STB supplier that was demonstrating Android TV on its 14,000 DMIPs Kamai 7 4K/UHD set-top box.

Amino was showing something unique at IBC: a dual-mode STB that supports both Linux as the operating system and Android TV Operator Tier, highlighting how the operator’s choice of UX/UI was barely affected by the switch from Linux to Android TV. The main difference was the addition of Android TV features like federated search and voice support. The point of the demonstration was to show how the risk can be removed from an Android migration, and how your set-top box can be future-proofed if you are not ready to migrate today.

There is a fairly complex junction approaching in the customer premise equipment road. When deciding on their next-generation platforms, operators must choose between proprietary middleware or open source (and most people we talk to believe the world is shifting towards open source). If you go open source, the options are RDK, Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and Android TV, which itself comes in two main flavours: Android TV (where you accept the Google user interface) and Android TV Operator Tier, which is looking like an early favourite for Pay TV.

AOSP is the base Android code, also used in the mobile industry, on which you can then build your own middleware. This is the option adopted by Swisscom and it provides great flexibility and control over what your platform looks like, including which apps appear on it. But this option does not seem to have much support.

Discussing the options, Kirk Edwardson, Head of Marketing at Espial, says: “With RDK you get more control over your environment, like with apps. Android gives you specific hardware requirements and RDK is more flexible in terms of your silicon and set-top box; you have more control over the device configuration and the manufacturers you can work with. If you want complete control over the stack, and you want to be part of an operator community that is driving towards a shared goal, and you want control of the analytics, then RDK is a good platform.”

Marek Kielczewski, SVP Global Engineering at SeaChange, says RDK suits customers who expect the highest levels of flexibility for their client device solutions.

One key benefit of Android TV is that you get some important services pre-integrated, assuming an operator sees value in a more open entertainment environment. As Ericsson pointed out when it announced its Android TV integration: “Consumers get a one-stop shop…operators can deliver experiences that fully integrate their Pay TV services with Android TV applications and OTT services.”

Ericsson also notes the opportunity to “leverage the multiple monetisation and partnership opportunities offered by Android TV”, and the company stresses that this platform empowers operators of all sizes and resources.

Potter at ARRIS notes that with many applications pre-integrated, Android TV should make it easier to deploy services, but this is not without cost. “You have to pass usage data back to Google.” According to Simon Trudelle, Senior Director of Product Marketing at NAGRA, this will limit the appeal to larger operators. “They may still prefer to keep Google away from having access to their subscriber data – and they may want to fully manage their app stores.”

The pre-integrations on Android TV do not provide you with a ready-made solution, however. An operator choosing this open source platform will have to work with a systems integrator and/or STB developer to integrate functionality that is not native to Android TV.

Jamie Mackinlay, Strategic Marketing at Amino, lists some of them: MPEG-2 multicast support, classic IPTV multicast, network DVR, tuners (terrestrial or cable, for example, for hybrid IP/broadcast boxes), CAS/DRM and even emergency alerts messaging in the United States. He says: “There is enormous interest in Android TV, but the devil is in the detail.”

ARRIS views this functional integration (along with UI/UX integration) as part of the value-add that it can add as a project leader, drawing on years of experience from its services division. It used IBC to highlight these capabilities as well as to show off the new UHD set-top boxes. The company listed some of the things it does: Assess and plan for Android TV services; Develop the operator-specific launcher and apps; Integrate content security and back-end systems; Validate and certify with Google and other third-party applications; Integrate, manage and test mandatory Android updates and upgrades.

“We view this as a service opportunity for ARRIS. We have the expertise to put these other pieces together,” Potter declares.

Content and device security is a major requirement, and a special challenge in the more open Android TV environment. There is no shortage of CA/DRM providers who can provide the security hardening that is needed, including effectively firewalling the Pay TV service from other applications running on the Android TV OS. ARRIS and Verimatrix are two providers who can take care of security requirements. NAGRA will do this job for you as well; within the next few weeks the company will be revealing its security work for Pay TV operators using Android TV, including for 4K/UHD services.

Edwards at Espial emphasises that there are two viable ‘standards’ platforms competing for operator attention now (RDK and Android TV) and operators will make business decisions about which one fits them best. He describes his company as agnostic – and given that Espial was such an early and firm RDK supporter, this shows how far Android TV has now imposed itself.

Kielczewski stresses that SeaChange is committed to RDK, but the multiscreen UX specialist goes where its customers want it to go. “We have been seeing a trend towards Android TV for some time and it is a really important platform,” he comments.

Com Hem is one of the most important Pay TV operators to commit to Android TV Operator Tier. Thomas Helbo, CTO at the Swedish company, revealed at Connected TV World Summit that it will use Android TV with GMS (Google Mobile Services) on a next-generation non-PVR set-top box for Com Hem homes that do not take its TiVo PVRs. It is also using Android TV for new set-top boxes (and eventually PVRs) at Boxer, the digital terrestrial operator that it owns. The commercial roll-out is scheduled for 2018.

Helbo listed time-to-market and internal resource requirements as two of the reasons for choosing Android TV. Com Hem wants to be a super-aggregator as well, providing customers with content from the OTT world as well as from broadcast, and Android TV suits this purpose.


Want to know more about Android TV and RDK options?

If you want to know more about the potential impact of open source (including RDK and the AOSP/Android TV options) on the future of customer premise equipment, listen to our free webcast on Tuesday, November 7, called ‘Using open source CPE to drive service innovation’. Thomas Helbo, CTO at Com Hem, is one of the speakers. You can register here.

Photo: The new range of Android TV set-top boxes from ARRIS.

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