Com Hem, the Swedish cable triple-play provider, will deploy some of its new Android TV set-top boxes into homes next month as part of a beta trial ahead of their commercial availability in January. The company will become one of the first Pay TV operators anywhere to deploy STBs that use the Android TV Operator Tier operating system, which allows you to build your own user experience on top of the open source Android framework.
The set-tops are aimed at non-PVR customers. Com Hem is happy with its TiVo PVRs, which are now in 40% of its cable homes, where they have raised net promoter scores – a key customer satisfaction metric. The Android boxes are designed to update the cable TV experience for the rest of the customer base.
On a Videonet webcast yesterday, Joel Westin, Product Director at Com Hem, revealed that the company went open source because it would compress hardware launch cycles and enable faster service/platform updates. It then considered RDK and Android Open Source Project (the base Android code that you build upon) as possible open source solutions but concluded that these would need more internal project management resources than Android TV (which comes with various applications and services pre-integrated).
The main reason for adopting Android TV Operator Tier, however, was time-to-market. Following some important preparations, the open source STB project began in earnest in March (this year) and Com Hem will have what Westin calls a “minimal lovable product” (a play on the term ‘minimum viable product’ that raises the bar for internal expectations!) just 10 months later.
“This means launching with a subset of all the features we would eventually like, but with a product that will be commercially successful. This approach has worked well, keeping down the time needed to get a first version to market. We intend to keep building, adding more functionality over time.”
Westin believes it is easier to adopt this approach – going to market with the minimal viable solution and then improving quickly in the field – when using an open source approach. “We have much more control now over the whole process of bringing the platform to market and making adjustments as we go along.”
He notes how the Scandinavian market [because of fierce competition and a tech-savvy population] has to be very customer-centric. “We ask for customer input and we need to do something with that information – get it into products – on a fairly tight turnaround loop,” he points out. “We felt time-to-market was the key for us, along with the features, and the time it takes to bring out new features, and cost.”
Com Hem was attracted to some of the features that come ready-made with the Android TV platform. The company has taken a calculated risk that any disadvantages from the potential presence of rival third-party apps, which cannot be excluded from the platform, are outweighed by the benefits of being a ‘super-aggregator’ who can combine a range of popular (non-rival) video apps together with the traditional Pay TV bouquet (including linear channels and on-demand).
“There is a fragmentation [of the user experience] in consumer homes; you have to go to separate sources to have all your entertainment needs fulfilled,” Westin points out. “We can add content that may not have been available on our traditional STBs and so capture much more of the total viewing time in front of big screen televisions.”
In other words, Com Hem wants everyone to stay on HDMI 1 and watch their non-Pay TV viewing through its set-top box and user experience. “The launcher UI [in Android TV Operator Tier, the ‘launcher’ refers to the UI/UEX software that the operator controls and which runs on top of the open source stack] will be the default environment and the rest [like apps] will be added on.”
One of the ways to mitigate the risk that rival Pay TV apps will appear in front of consumers is to pre-install the apps you do want them to see, and give them due prominence. Westin admits that the company must wait to see how third-party apps usage plays out in homes. “I would not say we are comfortable [with the risks of rival apps] but we are reasonably comfortable with it,” Westin confirms.
Com Hem would not have considered Android TV if it was not for the ‘Operator Tier’ version, confirming what STB vendors have told us – that this move by Google to introduce freedom of UEX choice was a game-changer. The ‘launcher’ means that the default view you see when going into the set-top box is the operator environment (their user interface).
Darren Fawcett, VP Technology Solutions at ARRIS, which now offers Android TV set-top boxes and remains a firm supporter of RDK, says ‘Operator Tier’ has removed one of the biggest differences between the Android and RDK offers. “A key characteristic for RDK has been the autonomy given to operators – the freedom of choice when it comes to their user experience layer. Android TV has now followed that approach, although it is still a little more defined.”
Fawcett also spoke on this week’s Videonet webcast, ‘Using open source CPE to drive service innovation’ which you can listen to on-demand (free).
“Interest in Android TV began to grow once operators were allowed to put their own experience, and look-and-feel, on there. That is why we are starting to see some operators decide that this [Android TV OS] might be their preferred solution going forwards.”
As we reported previously, a number of major UI/UEX software providers now support both RDK and Android TV Operator Tier. Fawcett confirms that the community of companies supporting these open source platforms will not be a differentiating factor if Pay TV operators are choosing between them. “It is fair to say you can find UX developers to implement in either RDK or Android.”
Com Hem, it should be noted, is a cable operator, which makes its choice of Android TV (Operator Tier version) all the more notable. RDK was originally developed with the cable industry in mind, and all its publicly known deployments are among cable operators, although Fawcett revealed on the webcast that ARRIS has implemented an RDK project (proof of concept) for a satellite operator. All previous major cable operators to go open source (e.g. Comcast, Liberty Global, NOS, Tele Columbus, J:COM) have adopted RDK. According to Fawcett, telcos have shown the most interest in Android TV until now.
In the Videonet webcast you can hear Joel Westin talk about how Com Hem views its new set-top boxes as another multiscreen endpoint, how the company had to adopt an ‘agile working’ philosophy alongside the move to open source (and how this is viewed as one of the two big outputs from the project, along with the new STB platform), and how the STB project drew on previous multiscreen experience.
Darren Fawcett discusses the different hardware requirements for RDK and Android TV, how open source accelerates innovation, what you need to do – apart from choosing your OS – when implementing an open source project, and why he thinks proprietary middleware will remain an option for operators.
Both executives discuss the trend towards more device diversity and potentially, more managed devices in customer homes, which we are covering in a separate story.
Com Hem has selected Technicolor for its STB hardware and 3SS as its UEX software provider for the new Android TV set-top boxes. The company will also use Android TV Operator Tier for a new range of ‘zapper’ STBs that will be deployed at Boxer, the DTT operator that it owns, and eventually for a Boxer PVR.
You can read more about the STB and UEX providers who were showing off Android TV solutions at IBC in September, here.