With the iPad going great guns and Android tablets in the offing from multiple suppliers, two vendors are betting low-cost tablets tailor made to enhance network operators' service value will be a hit with subscribers.
Tablets entering the market from Ericsson and Technicolor are meant to be distributed through SPs rather than retail outlets, with just enough functionality to make them appealing as advanced remote control devices and content viewing platforms but without the features and processing power common to the mass-market tablets. Technicolor this quarter introduced its 7-inch screen Media Touch Tablet, a successor to a smaller version which company officials say is already in deployment in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Ericsson, which has been showing prototypes of its tablet concept to service providers for over a year, has refined the platform as shown recently at IBC and SCTE Expo but declines to say when the tablet will be available commercially. "It's fair to say this is a product in the pre-deployment refinement stage, but as we get more and more interest and feedback from operators, we're not too far away from getting it out into real world," says Michael Adams, vice president of applications software at Ericsson.
Judging by the results of a global survey conducted by Ericsson ConsumerLabs, the SP-optimized tablets could hit a sweet spot on the consumer demand curve, resulting in new opportunities for SPs to improve customer satisfaction and increase revenue. The study, covering 7,000 households in seven countries representing a statistically accurate sampling of 366 million subscribers, found a high level of interest among respondents in a touch-screen device that can do triple duty serving as a remote control, as a means of using the Internet while watching TV and as a platform for accessing over-the-top video and home media.
The survey, conducted over a period that began just before and ended just after Apple's launch of the iPad, tapped attitudes that were not shaped as yet by the mass market response to the Apple tablet, Adams notes. Even so, 37 percent said they were interested or very interested in a device that could serve as a touch-screen remote. The interest level in such a device for social interactions, messaging and other Internet uses registered at 35 percent, while the availability of a device for watching OTT and TV programming was of interest to 28 percent.
"We think that in the future SPs will actually supply to their consumers a navigation device that's also a video screen," Adams says. Indeed, as reported in June (p. 1), Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts in an appearance at the National Cable Show made a big point of demonstrating how his company's developers had integrated software with the iPad to make it useful for TV navigation.
The steps taken by Ericsson and Technicolor reflect expectations that the opportunity for SPs could be much greater if they can extend the most appealing aspects of the tablet to a much larger audience beyond subscribers who happen to purchase high-priced iPads or other off-the-shelf tablets. "Folks who are early adopters might go out and spend $500 on an iPad, and if the SP Web site has an app to download, those people can use the iPad as a remote, but that's not going to be a very large percentage of your customers," Adams notes. "To make this available to the average customer as part of their service really makes sense."
As described by Technicolor officials, the Android-based Media Touch Tablet has been primarily defined to consume online and home audio and video, access the Web and its applications, as well as to interact with other equipment through its set of open interfaces. "With Media Touch, Technicolor has defined a new category of portable device in the home that helps network services providers monetize the promises of the digital home," says Georges Laplanche, senior vice president of the Connect Division at Technicolor. "Its integration within the operator's network makes it a setup-free device for end-users."
"Many service providers are going to be testing the tablet in the months ahead," says Kirk Barber, vice president for software architecture at Technicolor. "They don't want to be retailers or reseller of iPads. They want something that plays in the home network, and the way it interacts is important. The IPG will be one of the first apps that gets pushed to the tablet."
Technicolor is partnering with app developers to create a wide range of built-in applications that will add value to the company's new tablet, notes Benoit Joly, vice president for home networking and applications at Technicolor. "We'll be talking more about these apps at CES," he says.
The Ericsson tablet, also Android based, can be used with the vendor's service management platform, which will allow the SP to seamlessly integrate the device into the service environment. "The operator can come to Ericsson and say I want to offer a next-generation TV service, and as part of that I'd like to use your touch-screen remote," Adams says.
Conversely, if operators have a content management system from another vendor, they can integrate the tablet with that system. "We can provide an end-to-end solution, but you don't need to take that approach to use our tablet," Adams says. "We are using standardized interfaces, so the platform is very open. If there's another supplier's content management system and back office in place, we can work with that."
Ericsson has designed the device to cost far less than iPads and other retail tablets, he says. "This is a very low-cost tablet owned by the SP and leased to the subscriber," he notes. "It's an appliance rather than a general purpose device, so it's not something you'd take out of the home and use at the work place. It comes with pre-installed apps with the ability to access the Web and preview video and control the TV, but it's not designed to do spread sheets. It costs more than a traditional remote control, but the added cost makes a lot of sense from a customer satisfaction point of view."
It's up to operators how they want to configure the service and range of access on the device, he adds. "Some service providers will want to offer it in a wall-garden environment, while others may want a somewhat softened walled garden where everything is tied to the operator's service domain but there are links to some things outside as well. Or you can make it completely open for accessing any Web content."
As demonstrated at the SCTE Expo show in New Orleans last month, the user interface for the tablet has been simplified to the point a child can use it, notes Alexander Sem, a marketing manager at Ericsson. The non-grid guide allows users to scroll up to a week into the future of a given linear channel to schedule time-shifted viewing, preview content scheduled for playback within the next hour and perform many other functions, including discovery of home-stored content though DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) connections. "We did a lot of homework based on the feedback we got from service providers on the first prototype," Sem says.
While Ericsson is playing an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) role in offering its own branded tablet to service providers, Adams makes clear the company is equally prepared to work with service providers to integrate other tablets and devices into their service environment using Ericsson's content management system. "The ability to manage services on devices that weren't designed for a particular network operating environment the way set-tops have been is what our content management solution is all about," he says. "We're integrating everything in the cloud so that the subscriber can go through the back office to ask for content. The back office knows which device the user is on and initiates delivery of that content in the appropriate format."
The cloud-based content management system makes it easy to port applications and service enhancements that add to the utility of the new tablet and other devices, Adams adds. "Energy management could become a revenue operators working in partnership with utilities," he notes. "The tablet is also a good device for presenting advertising, where, after the user selects a movie for viewing on the TV, an ad is pushed to the tablet."