May 14, 2010 – With ever more content suppliers extending their reach across ever more distributor outlets and, via the Web, directly to end users, vendors' intensifying efforts to make their jobs easier could have important implications for the balance of power between service providers and programmers in this fast-moving space.
Microsoft's latest iteration of its service-oriented-architecture-based Digital Content Management (DCM) Framework is a case in point. Based on the upcoming release of Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010, the framework provides enhanced content management and collaboration, advanced workflow capabilities with new search technology and enhanced metadata management and business intelligence, says Gabriele Di Piazza, managing director for media and entertainment in Microsoft's Communications Sector.
Key products integrated in the solution include FAST Search for SharePoint, .NET Framework and Silverlight. "We believe our strategy of offering an integrated set of digital media solutions can help automate processes, create diverse monetization models and ultimately provide consumers with the best possible experiences," Di Piazza says.
These developments serve the needs of network service providers as well, Di Piazza adds. But the power to move the market appears to be flowing toward content providers who embrace such solutions.
"I think that over-the-top has become a key trend," Di Piazza says. "Some of the recent activities like the Winter Olympics with NBC Universal have shown what can be done with a platform and services that take the experience to the next level. They used Silverlight to support quality at up to 720p using the variable bit rate encoding built into Smooth streaming along with instant replay, slow motion and highlights from live events that were delivered into the online content in near real time."
Beyond enhancements to the DCM Framework there are other developments in play at Microsoft that will contribute to the efficiencies content providers are looking for in their search for better returns on their programs. For example, the company is working with Intel Corporation and Broadcom Corp. to deliver Silverlight support for system-on-a-chip (SOC) reference designs that will provide the complete Silverlight platform to set-top boxes, connected TVs, Blu-ray Disc players and other consumer devices
"We're optimizing the code for specific chipsets developed by these manufacturers," Di Piazza says. "Having Silverlight running directly on Intel and Broadcom chips will provide a common development environment for delivering Web-type interactive experiences and for digitization, DRM (digital rights management) and delivery via Smooth streaming across PCs, TVs and handsets."
Di Piazza refers to Silverlight as "shrink-wrapped .NET," meaning Silverlight combines the development capabilities of .NET tools with media player, Smooth streaming, security and other functionalities that are suited for network distribution of content and applications. But it's not a Windows-only platform from an end-device perspective, he adds.
"Silverlight is cross browser – Internet Express, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc.," he notes. "Apps work across PCs, Macs and other platforms."
Another important step for content owners and over-the-top (OTT) distributors is Microsoft's extension of its IPTV middleware platform into the Web space with its recent introduction of Mediaroom 2.0. "Mediaroom is currently a telco solution, and that's where the momentum is for that platform," Di Piazza says. "But now we've taken it in a broader direction by leveraging Smooth and Silverlight to enable OTT models."
For telcos this means extending the reach of their TV content to PCs, Macs, Xbox's and compatible smartphones. For OTT providers it offers a route to the TV through Mediaroom-enabled IPTV set-tops.
But for all the sexiness of the distribution side of the evolving scenario, it's really the content management where the heavy lifting has to be done, Di Piazza notes. "The bulk of my work is in content management where there's a need for convergence behind the distribution streams," he says.
"SharePoint is really becoming a major driving force as media companies realize they need to change their workflows to accommodate multi-device distribution," he adds. "SharePoint provides the collaborative work environment, highly integrated with development tools, that's essential to modeling and implementing new workflows." This extends to collaboration among production teams and different persons acting on different projects within the enterprise as well as outside customers and suppliers.
There are many enhancements associated with the new release of SharePoint. Silverlight is incorporated into this environment to facilitate rapid transfer of content across production, storage and play-out points. FAST search, a recent technology acquisition, has now been integrated into SharePoint 2010 to support semantic and contextual searches as well as indexing refinements in collaborative development. "The ability to quickly find relevant content is essential to efficient operations in this new environment," Di Piazza says.
Another key enhancement to the whole content management process that is now part of Silverlight is the Rough Cut Editor, which is a real-time, cross-platform, cross-browser video and metadata editing solution that greatly speeds content creation and expedites advertising delivery in different usage-specific scenarios. "Rough Cut allows you to bring different experiences to different devices by quickly modifying content and metadata," Di Piazza explains.
Rough Cut was an especially attractive inducement to NBC Sports in its choice of Silverlight for the Winter Olympics, says Perkins Miller, senior vice president of digital media at NBC Sports. "Two critical goals for coverage of the Vancouver Olympics were speed of delivery and cost," Perkins says. "The Silverlight Rough Cut Editor helped us achieve those goals by enabling editors to cut short-form highlights from long-form live coverage through a Web-based editor and have them published to the site within seconds, even while the event was still in progress. This dramatically reduced our costs and made it easier and faster to deliver video."
Microsoft has leveraged SharePoint 2010 and Silverlight to fashion various media business management solutions as part of the Digital Content Management Framework, including Dynamics AX, which is designed as an end-to-end operational system for media companies. One of the immediate points of market impact for Dynamics AX will result from an alliance between Microsoft and Ascent Media Group.
Ascent will package the enterprise resource planning (ERP) capabilities of Dynamics as a branded solution called AERO, which streamlines the digital media supply chain from pre-production through packaging and distribution to multiple media consumption platforms and geographies, says Igor Vezmar, vice president for product management at Ascent. AERO provides a single easy-to-use interface for all services being performed on both physical and digital assets, enabling faster, higher quality media asset management, order management, customer service, billing and financial planning, Vezmar explains.
"We have a renewed strategic focus on distribution," Vezmar says, noting the impact new business models are having on Ascents' customers' requirements. As an outsource provider of many of the functionalities that underlie traditional content processing for distribution, Ascent recognizes media companies need to be in more direct control of these content management components as the multi-screen, multi-outlet complications mount.
"They've become their own aggregators, so it's hard to go back to us for all the incremental services," Vezmar says. "They need to be able to do it themselves."
Support for time-shifted applications as well as OTT and new advertising scenarios is where the need to streamline processes is most intense, he says, adding: "And the other thing is data analytics," he notes. Accurate metrics and business intelligence can be used to drive continuous process reengineering to help studios, broadcasters and distributors bring digital content to the marketplace faster and more cost efficiently, he says.