YouView and me

I’ve been a happy Youview owner since the New Year. Great platform, easy to use, responsive, excellent hooks into the VoD players. The launch of the companion app on iOS sealed the deal for me. Now I’m off to drink some aftershock.

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Samsung’s pitch for 2011

It is new product season, and Samsung sent a pretty powerful message to the living room CE market yesterday from their 2011 product launch in Budapest.
Not content to sit on their laurels as Europe’s most popular TV, Blu-ray and home cinema manufacturer (their claim), the new Samsung D7000 and D8000 LCD panels boast wireless streaming capability to Galaxy tablets. This is a real signal that Samsung are as intent as anyone on attempting to own the viewer, in the living room at least. Apple were the first to offer this facility.

Samsung's vision of the home network

These new devices have only just been announced, so details are still vague, but the minimum expected functionality is broadcast content streamed to the Galaxy tablet and S2 phone via the second terrestrial tuner within the set. The Galaxy of course already offers DLNA functionality to allow the user to pull archived content from a home media server or PC. Granted, many implementations of DLNA content browsing have been woeful in recent times on connected devices generally; to get the sexy experience in this area there is none to beat Apple (with Airplay the on iPad), but naturally one takes the hit of being restricted to the iTunes environment. The rumours of Apple’s foray into a proper TV product (i.e. one with a screen) suggest that they sense the threat in this area from the likes of Samsung.

Samsung have named this as Smart Hub, although this badge also wraps up internet/app functionality as well as access to local content. It will be available on 75% of their 2011 LCD/LED TV products. It is a most definite improvement on their ‘Internet @TV’ service, which I have found to be clunky and laborious to navigate. They boast an ‘All Search’ feature, allowing the viewer to search through all available sources, be they online, subscribed app channels/VoD stores, or any DLNA connected home devices. It remains to be seen how intelligent this feature is that it would be useful on a day to day basis (i.e. it’s ability to get straight to the meaty content and not throw up false positives), although initial reports are favourable.

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Changing face of the internet

A good article in UK Wired a couple of months back prompted me to give me 2p on how the nature of the internet has started to change over the last 2 years or so.

The article focused on the both the type of content that is trafficked but as importantly, the underlying transport via which it travels and the method final user access. Go back 15 years –  file sharing was almost exclusively via FTP, email was starting to be used wholesale at corporate and personal levels, and streaming and apps did not exist. Bar the semi-walled garden weirdness that was AOL, most dial-up ISPs gave the user vanilla ability to use a web-browser and email client and that pretty much your lot. All content discovery was web-based via a browser, mainly IE and Netscape but then soon many more, with varying degrees of compatibility I might add. For a few years we lived in a world that would be the closest to what could be called an ‘open’ framework.
How things have changed. No sooner had email replaced the hand-written letter, that it seems that email itself is far too long winded for some, and is being replaced by a plethora of instant messaging services. FTP is dead, replaced by peer-to-peer. In terms of raw internet traffic, video streaming has been the real growth driver here as domestic bandwidths have allowed.

Within a short time, the catchy-named ‘app’ is quickly beginning to dominate the landscape, mainly on mobile platforms but more in the connected TV space. An app is the antithesis of openness. A developer can allow access a resource of their choice behind a walled-garden; there is no need to worry about browser compatibility, html standards etc. We are seeing the shift in power from brands spending large amounts of marketing budget on an all-singing website to focusing more on developing a lean and slick smartphone or tablet app, that can additionally take advantage of the platform accoutrements offered – always connected, geo-location, augmented reality etc. I would not argue that this can offer a superior user ‘brand experience’, but I do worry that were are entering a world where the common browser experience will get punted down the list and perhaps forgotten about altogether, a massive fragmentation of the web-world which we are used to. Apple have given a glimpse of what is to come with the release of their App Store for Mac OS – you can if you want emulate the same experience across all your Apple devices. Will this start to make the Safari browser a quaint antiquity, to be defaulted to whenever a ‘non-corporate’ brand is encountered, who do not have the money or wherewithal to develop a bespoke app of their own?

This is especially prescient in the Connected TV space, where the web-browser plus keyboard approach always fails (that does not keep some from still trying though). In this arena, I can only see fragmentation. This is to my disappointment as an engineer but I am pragmatic enough to know that there are a vast amount of dollars sloshing around the TV industry, and open standards are about the last thing on everyone’s mind. Brand exposure and driving users to your content is the name of the game and everything else is secondary.

I see a two-tier internet economy, with on the one hand, companies with the power to develop apps for any platform, and on the other, the rest who make do with a website. This is not the same as what happened in the ‘v1 internet’, where the big boys merely got there first and in a better way – I could just open a tab and compare with a competitor in (literally) a side by side fashion. Of course the small guy probably had a more basic site, but at least I could compare apples with apples in the same environment.
What we have now is a clear distinction – as a user, I am interested in company ‘x’, I go to the appstore to search, but draw a blank. I am slightly annoyed at this, and may terminate my research into said company, because I have to shift out of app-land, and it has become a minor hassle to open a web-browser.

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An innovation boost for interactive advertising

[This blog was originally published for Videonet http://www.v-net.tv/Blog.aspx?id=616&title=an-innovation-boost-for-interactive-advertising%5D

I left the Future TV Ads Forum in early December with mixed feelings. Firstly I was enthused to see some new ideas coming from the likes of Google/YouTube, who more than most know how the mechanics of the video advertising industry tick. On the downside, things are still muddling along, for want of a better expression, in the Connected TV world. However this latter sentiment is probably my naive/impatient consumer side showing through, rather than a pragmatic take on the state of the industry (more on that another time).

Something that really caught my eye was YouTube’s recently launched Trueview product Instream, presented by Bruce Daisley, which enables optional skipping of pre-roll ads after the first 5 seconds. Advertisers are charged only when an ad is watched through (albeit at a higher CPA).

Instream allows advertisers to get some decent metrics on what ads work where and when, excellent for soft-start campaign piloting and budgeting control generally. It seems strange now that this utterly simple idea has not come sooner; there is certainly no particular technical wizardry at work. My suspicion is that YouTube have taken some time to convince advertisers as to the value of this ‘opt-in’ policy – that viewers are not necessarily hell-bent on ad-skipping at all costs. Now, YouTube have thousands of hours worth of metrics proving the efficacy of this approach. Just focus on relevance and quality and results will come (how many times did I hear that at FTVAds?!)

A sister product (in pilot), dubbed InSlate, is more tailored to long-form content, whereby viewers can choose from a selection which ad is served pre-roll. This is similar to methods already used by Hulu for example.

Another interesting product launched recently is Panache’s publishing tool for fast forwarding an ad, whilst still getting the message across. Using a proprietary fast forward overlay button, viewers are switched over to an alternate audio and video stream. If their solution doesn’t involve the content creator/agency having to work too hard, this could gain some traction. Initial launch was for a Samsung ad on MTV networks. It’s great that we’re starting to see some solutions in this space; the industry needs an innovation boot in this area. I’m certain more will follow.

I was curious to see another presentation by Yahoo! Connected TV widgets. We first saw this at IDF two years ago, co-launched with Intel. Now the Javascript/XML based engine has found it’s way into Sony, Samsung and LG widget platforms amongst others with some fruitful content deals. However I do think Yahoo must stop parading so highly the social networking/weather/Bloomberg side of TV widgets. I can see how these were the ‘proof of concept’ example before content deals had been struck, but in my opinion what the punters are after above all else is an easy way to get their favourite catch-up.

Additonally, my personal opinion is that the whole widget-bar/dock approach which Yahoo keep plugging is screen clutter, and will be remembered as another ‘how not to do it’ experiment on the long road to broadcast+broadband content harmony. But I may be wrong – how else could it be done? My preferred method of accessing catch-up – seamlessly integrating into the main EPG, can only currently be achieved by operators on bespoke platforms as far as I know. Additionally, we shouldn’t forget that there was no iPad in existence until May this year. Tablets have really shifted the field when it comes to thinking about how to split the presentation of pure content/social networking/EPG browsing functions; so much the better.

A quick point on the business/monetisation side of TV widgets; I don’t quite understand how this is going to work out in the retail device environment for advertisers who need accurate customer data; devices are splattered over all regions and demographics in a random fashion. That’s about as untargeted as it gets.

As for implementation, current devices generally perform poorly when running widgets (TVs still aren’t designed with MIPS or memory as a top priority, given the build-to-a-price nature of this market). Of course this will improve in time, but I do feel a little for consumers who have a 2010-season set and have to endure a sluggish performance – it can only lead to viewer disillusionment. How long before we see TVs aping the PC market, with a DRAM expansion slot in the back?

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Cord cutting in the UK (or should that be ‘not getting a cord in the first place’)

[This blog was originally published for Videonet http://www.v-net.tv/Blog.aspx?id=549&title=cord-what-cord]

One can find many an article on Pay-TV cord-cutting Stateside. Generally speaking there are slightly more compelling alternatives though that are yet to hit the UK, namely the Roku box featuring Netflix, Hulu, the big networks rolling out streaming services (I’ve tried a few via a proxy server, and the quality was excellent IMO).

I am curious how the viewing habits of the younger generation will impact the UK Pay-TV market in particular.

Sky’s 10m target
Five years ago, James Murdoch’s touted his (in)famous to reach the 10-million subscriber mark by the end of this year (I wonder if that’s calendar or financial – it could be important). To their credit, they are getting close, and given Sky’s current solid marketing drive, it would be a blow to the pride (and bonuses) of their strategists if they faltered at the last. With the re-launch of Apple TV and Google around the corner, to name but two, one wonders if the last couple of hundred thousand heads that Sky want (some of whom presumably have held out for so long) are a bridge too far, as they are more and more presented with a slew of good value alternate options. So what is Sky’s attraction and how much does it cost?

Live sport – the prime offering, market effectively sewn up
I maintain that although they would like to promote themselves in more rounded terms, Sky was and is about their prime-rib live sport, specifically football, a bit of an obsession in these Isles. Sky have the handy position of being both distributor and producer here, so they can name terms to release the content to other distributors (within the bounds of fair play of course)
It’s a simple calculation – you won’t get any change from £40/month minimum if you want this content (I’m not talking HD here by the way – add another tenner for that).

VoD – convenient, but good value competition from Lovefilm
A Sky Movies channel bouquet add-on will add another £8/month (but bear in mind the latest releases are Sky Box Office PPV at £4-a-pop). This is bolstered with Sky Anytime, their watch-now add-on delivered over broadband.
However the huge growth of the efficient Lovefilm postal DVD service, in a large part due to their affiliate marketing program and vast catalogue, I believe has seriously dented the appeal of Sky’s movie offering. Additionally, Lovefilm are starting to take small steps with their streaming service on web and selected CE devices.

Convenience
I won’t argue, a walled garden operator platform is the most convenient way in which to consume TV. One box, one remote, simple. This is bolstered with Sky Anytime, their watch-now add-on delivered over broadband.

The baseline
If you’re prepared to live without the sport, movies and HD, you still won’t be able to crank the monthly bill down below £19…

Going back to the demographic in focus, let’s take the typical UK graduate. A decade ago, this youth/graduate demographic was easy pickings:

  1. Relatively small personal debts
  2. Buoyant economy
  3. No internet-based content available (no broadband full-stop – what a thought!)
  4. Blockbuster an annoying 5 minute drive away

So, hooked straight onto a basic Pay-TV package, at the least. Chances are these 30-somethings are still customers.

2010 graduate:

  1. £20k of debt
  2. Ropey job prospects
  3. Always-on laptop with a mix of purchased and pirated internet-based content (and more where that came from)
  4. Plenty of free (iPlayer) and micropayment catch-up services (Seesaw) via broadband (and consequently, QoS expectations framed by these services)
  5. Perhaps LoveFilm on Pay As You Go

Really, how compelling is the Pay-TV offering now that they would commit to a contract?

They adage goes ‘get them when they’re young and you have a customer for life’. In my opinion this is where the big operators are going to suffer. And why they will either have to cut prices to entice newcomers (Sky just raised them) or milk even more revenue from the current subs base (tough in this climate).

As for subscriber churn, an apathetic customer is an operator’s best friend. But this isn’t the uber-competitive broadband or mobile telephony market. If someone leaves Sky, I suspect it’s because they want to save money, not because Virgin Media has a better reputation for customer service.
With a giant axe poised over the public sector in the UK, how long before the ‘apathetic customer’ becomes ‘unemployed and penny-wise customer’?

For me the promise of OTT could start to stir things. How many Pay-TV subscribers are taking the cost hit on a package just in order to get access to some niche interest channel, say National Geographic or Discovery. This is probably the best example of where a Roku-like device could come into the market, and if the price was right at consumer and provider end, could really start shaking things up. Time will tell.

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DTT business models

I know I wasn’t the only one present at IBC last week who had the uneasy yet familiar feeling that things are rather back to front vis-a-vis technology capabilities and business models.

Anthony Smith-Chaigneau of Alticast made a pertinent comment last week: ‘IBC was soulless this year; where is the industry heading – into a whirlpool of technology and no business to support it’, going on to say ‘I asked many a business model question and drew many a blank. especially HbbTV and OTT and 3D…’ These aren’t the words of a Luddite, rather someone who has been at the forefront of several successful deployments of interactive MHP in Asia and Europe – Anthony is quite rightly wondering where the money is going to come from.

It’s the classic situation that I’ve seen before (and been guilty of to a certain extent) – excited engineers at the bleeding edge of technology, trying to shove the ‘pesky business case’ question under the carpet. Well guys sorry to tell you, sexy tech is lovely, but if it can’t make someone somewhere some money, it’s about as useful as a chocolate fireguard.

I’ve spoken about 3D before, so let’s take DTT. The UK has been bucking the trend here on the whole, having hosted one of the greatest growth stories of DTT, in the form of Freeview, which launched in 2002. There is some irony that such a success was born out of the pirated-to-death mess that was ITV Digital. The beleaguered TopUpTV is the Freeview Pay-TV add-on (a cheap but lame-duck offering, reflected in it’s woeful subscriber numbers). Freeview HD is rolling out currently – not really a new service, merely the addition of an HD multiplex.

The next big thing for the UK is YouView, the artist formerly known as Canvas. This promises to bring together linear broadcast and broadband content, as well as ‘a huge choice of on-demand and PayTV’. It’s no wonder that Sky have been whinging, although they can hardly claim to be in the position of down-trodden underdog – 10 million subscriptions is not too shabby, especially in a market that has low Pay-TV penetration compared to other developed countries, arguably because of the BBC’s influence.

It could be argued that with the popularity of iPlayer and broadband take-up etc., that the time is indeed ripe for an initiative such as YouView to be pushed hard whatever. I wouldn’t disagree with this. However I also can’t help feeling that Sky’s year-on-year growth, as well as the BBC’s funding freeze, is starting to seriously worry the Beeb, who must be really hoping that YouView flies in order to maintain their own viewership long term.

Catch-up service integration is all very well – what really interests me (and Sky I’m sure), is the proper PayTV and VoD potential. The next few months will tell what sort of partnerships we’ll see here (Seesaw, Lovefilm?) – and this will ultimately dictate how successful YouView will be. Will we see the first truly horizontal market with integrated ‘open’ add-on Pay-TV deployment? I have had a quick look through the first release YouView specs, and to be honest, to me things are still very much work-in-progress; this won’t be the quick-turnaround launch that was pulled-off with Freeview HD; it is far more complex due to the vested interests of the many parties that are involved.

Clearly I am UK-centric – I’m interested in other’s comments about DTT business models elsewhere, especially markets where HbbTV is trying to forge a path.

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3D in the home – how much money to make it stick?

I thought I’d get the 3D issue out of the way in prep for another blog I’m writing which will cover the broader topic of the marriage of technology and business models (or more pertinently at the moment, not even getting past the first date).

Get past the gung-ho newswire PR from Sky and you’ll find that their 3D launch is actually quite softly-softly; the selected pub showings in January and the domestic launch 1st October, just in time for the Ryder Cup. They are investing much time and money, for sure, but this isn’t the safe bet that HD was. In fact as far as I can see, Sky are flooding their ad space with wall to wall HD promos, so we can not even say that 3D is too quick on the heels of HD – HD is still being pushed hard! Even if there was not economic mess for the foreseeable future, how many users do they really expect to blow another grand (at least) on a 3D set a couple of years after treating themselves to an HD one?

For me the consumer pull is only one aspect – the production issues for live content are huge. Let’s take sport as the obvious candidate. With a 2D flow there are standard camera placements and then effectively only focus and zoom to worry about thereafter. With 3D the producer needs to concern themselves with interocular distance setup, convergence issues, very accurate framing, fast pan issues, camera placement. All in real-time. If these are screwed-up, you can end up with some pretty sore eyes, vomit bags at the ready – a poor experience. And don’t expect feeds to be taken from the 3D cameras and downconverted into the 2D workflow – due to the camera placement issues, expect to have a duplicate set of cameras in their ‘traditional’ positions for the 2D content. That’s a lot of cameras. And a lot of crew. And a lot of money.

The public’s appetite has been whetted in some quarters with the ‘3D rebirth’ with Avatar in the cinemas last December. A slew of releases have followed, and I wonder how many are in the pipe. However, Avatar was a hand-crafted, meticulously produced offering, mastered by someone who had nursed the technology for a decade. How many producers will be so scrupulous? Will we see the production quality tail-off on the cinema screen? If so, will this lead to a resurgent wave of scepticism amongst those who thought it might be a good idea to bring 3D into the living room?

To say that the process of shooting and post-producing a Hollywood movie is a different proposition to taking the Sky trucks along to Old Trafford on a wet February Saturday is to put it mildy.

Ben Schwarz wrote a good piece in July, more focused on the consumption side of 3D: http://www.v-net.tv/Blog.aspx?id=446

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