WebKit-Based TV Browser May Alter Scaling Prospects for OTT

Ken Lowe, VP, strategic marketing, Sigma Designs

Ken Lowe, VP, strategic marketing, Sigma Designs

September 10, 2010 – Has the time come for consumer electronics manufacturers and over-the-top aggregators to bite the bullet and move to a Web browser-based approach to facilitating service offerings over connected TVs and other entertainment devices?

Up to now most players on both sides have eschewed opening user access to Web-based content via browsers, in part because general purpose Web browsers aren’t suited to the TV experience and in part because everyone wants to limit as much as possible user access to the content they’re promoting to the exclusion of other sources. But, logistically, this is a losing proposition for the long haul, and it’s a barrier to the content abundancy that is essential to motivating consumers to buy into the over-the-top option.

So say the folks at Espial, a supplier of middleware and other software solutions for IPTV and OTT, including a new Web TV browser based on the WebKit open browser platform. “We just don’t think the current trajectory with content guys building embedded applications that have to be integrated with every generation of the devices produced by the manufacturers they contract with is sustainable,” says Kirk Edwardson, director of marketing at Espial.

On one level the case appears to be ironclad. As Edwardson notes, OTT content service providers like Netflix, Boxee, Vudu and myriad others rely on custom-built applications to distinguish their services from competitors, ensure the highest quality, provide security and provide enhanced navigation capabilities. services are typically developed in-house by CSPs as custom-built embedded applications. But the costs of building and supporring such applications are high for both content service providers and manufacturers alike.

“Manufacturers have to port and integrate applications from each provider with every new product cycle, which gets more costly the more clients you have,” Edwardson says. “And when the content providers update their UIs (user interfaces) or other apps, the manufacturers have to re-flash the products they have in people’s homes.”

In the early going with relatively few models from any given manufacturer and relatively low penetration of connected TVs, it’s been fairly easy for content providers and manufacturers to keep up with the changes, he adds. But as penetration moves to the tens of millions and applications proliferate, the complications and costs will become too burdensome.

Espial argues that by deploying an open browser with their devices manufacturers will eliminate these hassles while delivering a more viable application implementation platform for content providers. Espial has optimized its TV Browser for this environment by leveraging the WebKit open browser environment that Apple implemented in conjunction with efforts to foster wider use of its Safari browser technology five years ago. The WebKit core, also used by Google for its Chromium browser, supports HTML5, CSS3 animations (the widely used alternative to Adobe Flash) and graphics engines like OpenGL, the commonly used 2D/3D graphics API (applications program interface) that’s supported by leading system-on-a-chip (SoC) manufacturers.

“We’ve put extensions on top of WebKit to make it perform better for TV,” Edwardson says. One key component essential to the TV environment is enabling remote control navigation, he notes. Along with support for standard formats like HTML5, JavaScript and CSS3 the TV browser should be tightly integrated with hardware graphics acceleration and video and support interactive TV standards like HbbTV (Hybrid broadcast broadband TV) and BML (Broadcast Markup Language).

As reported last year (September, p. 8) HbbTV draws on elements of existing standards and Web technologies to create a means of marrying broadband and broadcast delivery of content, improving the value proposition for connected TV sets and allowing free-to-air and other digital service providers to enhance their offerings with Web-based components.BML is an XML-based data broadcasting specification for digital TV.

The Espial strategy gained strong support this year when SoC supplier Sigma Designs announced it was pre-integrating Version 6.0 of the Espial TV Browser along with Adobe Flah in its reference platforms. “Integrating multimedia with a fast and stable browser delivers a seamless TV user experience for over-the-top content expected with the latest multimedia players and set top boxes,” says Ken Lowe, vice president of strategic marketing at Sigma.

But, and here’s the dilemma the OTT providers and manufacturers face, it also opens access to the connected TV and other device platforms to all providers who tap into the WebKit environment and all its components. “Everyone can be an aggregator,” Edwardson acknowledges. “It simplifies development for existing players, but it has the potential to even the playing field.”

But this would seem to be more problematic for established content aggregators who would see the barriers to entry falling and potentially a plethora of branded entrants seeking to capitalize on the new environment, much as Amazon is already doing with its attempt to compete with Netflix on subscription service. For manufacturers, not only does the Web TV browser approach reduce many hassles respecting updates and integration of new providers; it expands their ability to add value on the content side.

“Looking at big manufacturers like Philips and Sony, we see a whole bunch of use cases,” Edwardson says. “For example, they can use social media to connect with users, offering them an opportunity to sign up to their services and gain discounts on products. And the more open environment will help them when they’re ready to get serious about selling advertising on their platforms.”

Edwardson says there are no deals to talk about yet, but interest is high. “I do believe we’re starting to see TV manufacturers swinging toward recognition that the Web TV browser is the way to go,” he says, noting that Espial has strong relationships with Asian manufacturers, especially in China. “I also think you’ll see content service providers getting onto that page before too long.”

Getting onto Sigma takes the concept to the next level, he adds. “We’re doing all the testing integration up front, so any set-top manufacturer that chooses that chipset knows it simplifies the whole go-to-market for everybody,” he says. “Our incentive is to get these ports and certifications done.”

The bottom line, he adds, is the extent to which the browser approach lowers integration costs and risk while dramatically improving portability. “When you look at the costs of porting applications to new hardware platforms and new generations of existing hardware systems, it’s clear the current approaches will be unable to scale as the consumer base and complexity grows,” he says.