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How Android reduces operator costs: but it’s still a choice between Android TV and AOSP

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Why are so many operators moving to Android TV? At IBC, Kai-Christian Borchers, managing director of 3 Screen Solutions (3SS), believes that for many, it’s becoming a no-brainer. He ticks off the reasons one by one.

“One is the extreme, cumbersome, headache-generating projects in the past with non-Android TV (boxes),” he explains. “No matter [whose they were] it was a huge pain to bring this thing live. And Android TV is solving that issue by providing out of the box many components to make it much less painful.” This implies less integration, and shorter time-to-market.

His second point is that subscribers expect much more from a set-top box today than they did in the past, when it only delivered linear TV. “Today it is about all of these other third-party services that the customer expects to be on the box,” such as Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. While it is possible to “plug in any third-party app store, […] the way it is integrated into your eco-system will not be as powerful as what Google provides out of the box with Android TV, i.e. Google Play Store.”

Borchers considers that the availability of Google Assistant for voice control is another important driver of Android TV take-up. “You have others that have components like this but it is hard to integrate those,” he comments. “I would say the services that Google provides on top of their platform are superior and make it a very nice customer experience for the operators at a much lower cost.” And, of course, since Android is open-source, it is also licence-free.

All of this ignores what’s happening to the price of the hardware required to support Android. One of the issues previously, concedes Borchers, is that “Android TV was so heavy it didn’t run on cheap boxes.” Now Google is working hard to make it run on set-top boxes with a much less powerful chipset, he says. He points to the fact that whereas 3SS’s recently-deployed 3READY Android TV set-top box for Swedish pay-TV provider Com Hem TV runs at 14,000 DMIPS (a measure of a box’s power and speed), Technicolor’s latest Android TV box, showcased on the 3SS IBC stand, runs at just half that: 7,000 DMIPS.

This has a double-whammy effect: with the Android TV operating system getting lighter, it’s taking up less room in the box – which in turn means implementing Android OS’s upgrades doesn’t (necessarily) imply upgrading the hardware. Conversely, this trend is making it increasingly appealing to operators to retro-fit Android to lower-performing legacy boxes.

It might appear from the foregoing that the current migration to Android involves only Android TV. In fact, operators can also choose to go with Android Open Source Project (AOSP) – indeed, another 3SS customer, Swisscom, has elected to do just that.

With AOSP, the operator retains flexibility about what it can build, has control over what the GUI looks like, how navigation operates, what channels are included in the EPG, and so on. For Android TV, on the other hand, this control is significantly weakened.

For Borchers, this means that, in effect, AOSP is generally more expensive to deploy, since fewer features come pre-integrated. “If you want to have the Google services—Voice Assistant, Chromecast, Play Store— then you need to do Android TV and not Open Source,” points out Borchers. Otherwise, you would have to build or integrate your own equivalents.

For all that, Borchers notes that, paradoxically, “there is thinking in the market which seems to indicate that the bigger the operator is, the more they are leaning towards AOSP rather than Android TV.”

Borchers speculates this is because “they don’t want to tie themselves to Google so much. They don’t want to say, ‘I need to follow Google’s rules’, because they don’t know what Google’s rules will be tomorrow. [Instead, they say] ‘I want to go AOSP because then I’m completely free.’ It is for sure going to be the more expensive solution, but it gives them a bit more comfort.” And, it is worth pointing out that AOSP – like Android TV – remains licence-free.

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