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April 6, 2010

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The Good, Bad and the Realistic at IPTV World Forum 2010

Sitting at a cafe in Heathrow airport after the IPTV World Forum and sipping a cup of very good coffee, I am pondering over my impressions from the show. It is a fascinating and very fragmented world. Too many components, too many dependencies, too complex integration and most likely an involved customization effort. (I saw this echoed in some of the show's official blog posts.) That is probably just a fact of life and the side effect of free market economy and natural competition. Those are typically good things.  What struck me, though, was a feeling that this characteristic phenomenon of a capitalist economy, which is usually associated with innovation, may actually stifle innovation to some extent. What I mean is that if one company has a good idea and tries to add a new feature, new service or a new business model to its system, it is very likely that they need to line up too many of the proverbial ducks in a row. A service provider ordering the end-to-end system may have enough power (or money) to make this happen. Most of the individual players may not have the time and resources to incorporate a speculative feature. 

Case in point, a service provider wants to repackage a set of episodes on a network DVR to a season and offer it again for purchase or rent; it may require cooperation of the storefront vendor, middleware, CA/DRM to re-encrypt the content, content management to keep track of a new asset, user interface, billing system, etc. Not to mention extending the distribution rights obtained from the studio. How can we optimize this process, make it more agile and responsive? 

The Paths to OTT

Another aspect of the conference that perked up my mind was the concept of over-the-top or OTT. What is it, really? When you ask the consumer, it may mean getting content from any source rather than a single TV service provider. It may also mean watching the content on a PC or even more importantly, getting it for free.  A service provider may be thinking about reaching its subscribers on any device whether the user may be at home, traveling or even outside the provider’s managed network. Or even about reaching a new customer beyond the reach of his fixed network. And the studio may even be thinking about bypassing the service or network operator altogether. A very interesting and intellectually stimulating puzzle, indeed. 

But the bottom line is how is anybody going to make any money and who is going to benefit at the end. Is it like the buzz of the “long tail” content from several years ago? I did not hear it mentioned a single time at the conference. So what are the enablers of a successful OTT strategy? How does one monetize this new opportunity? I personally don’t want to go to too many web sites to get my content, set up numerous accounts, receive multiple bills, learn different user interfaces, set up my preference over and over … you get my point. 

Seems to me that a relatively easy way to deliver OTT is to extend an existing service to new devices and reach existing subscribers wherever they happen to be. This approach represents only incremental cost, reuse of existing content, adding value to the existing brand, extending the current relationship with the subscriber and ultimately increasing or at least maintaining revenue.  Don’t take me wrong; there will be successful OTT services outside of the traditional service providers. As an example, my family enjoys the Netflix on-line service.

But even this one started as an extension of another business strategy rather than a pure OTT, even though it may end up eliminating the mailing of physical DVDs altogether. (By the way, I did end up signing up for a higher tier broadband service indirectly paying for the Netflix service to my DSL provider.)  This is why Verimatrix has extended content protection services to PCs and smart phones, added support for adaptive rate streaming and provides a multi-rights head-end, shielding the service operator from the complexity of multiple device types, each possibly requiring a different CA or DRM system. These are all necessary enablers of a successful OTT strategy. 

Home Networking Standards and Psychology

Home networking and sharing content among devices in the home in particular is another topic that excites me. It started as sharing content between a DVR and one or more set-top boxes or PCs, sometimes called whole-home DVR or multi-room DVR. This scenario was partially driven by the fact that content is already present in the home on the DVR and the destination devices are compatible as far content format and resolution are concerned. 

Such architecture has been standardized to some extent by UPnP and DLNA and even OCAP-HN. But as one starts adding devices requiring different file formats, video codecs and resolutions, this architecture may no longer be sufficient. The lack of remote access to home content is another serious limitation. As bandwidth is becoming ubiquitous, it will become easier to stream transcoded content in the appropriate format, optimized for the destination device directly from the head-end. 

DLNA may still be used to discover the content in the home but the rights and the device-optimized content may be reacquired for the best user experience. Thus DTCP-IP may not be the only way to protect content in the home. By taking advantage of the more flexible way of signaling content protection and other content attributes using UPnP content discovery services, allows the destination device to copy the content locally, request its own rights and access keys or request a more suitable instance of the content altogether from the service provider. 

Psychology of ownership plays a role here as well, but I believe that over time consumers will become comfortable with the idea of owning rights to content rather than owning the content itself in the DVD form or the digital form. The ultimate challenge is to make this complexity completely transparent to the end user – “search, select and play” nothing more.   

I look forward to continuing these conversations at NAB. See you in Vegas. Gotta go – last call for boarding!

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