March 18, 2011 – NDS is breaking new ground on the over-the-top front with two initiatives that it hopes will have a profound impact on service providers’ efforts to blend traditional subscription TV and IP-based content and applications into an experience that consumers can’t get anywhere else.
One of these initiatives, known as the “Service Delivery Platform (SDP),” aims to accelerate the proliferation of applications that will allow operators to extend their branded presence to devices of every description. The other, dubbed “Infinite TV Exchange (ITX),” provides a means by which content owners and service providers can work together to rapidly build a base of niche channels to enrich branded OTT offerings.
In both cases, NDS is creating Web-based marketplaces where the vendor’s software tools allow service providers to work in a virtual environment with participants from all corners of the content and apps worlds to forge contract and licensing terms and to arrange technical support mechanisms on a scale and at a pace that can’t be achieved through traditional one-on-one dealings. “As suppliers to 75 operators worldwide with our technology infrastructure running on over 170 million set-tops we’re better able than anybody, including Apple and Google, to help this market scale,” says Yoni Hashkes, NDS senior vice president for advanced products and markets at NDS.
While the ITX and SDP share a conceptual framework aimed at building global marketplaces to facilitate service providers’ participation in the OTT explosion, the two platforms are completely separate with components designed to serve different goals. Together they represent a significant expansion of the NDS product portfolio.
ITX, already seeded with over 100,000 hours of content from sources such as National Geographic, Kids Co., SPEED, Revision 3, Watch Mojo, Red Bull Media and numerous specialty broadcasters, provides a complete ecosystem of the necessary components to transform individual content into OTT programming channels, Hashkes says. Content owners of all descriptions can upload their content to the marketplace and create their own channels with the provided tools. They can then negotiate contractual and commercial terms with service providers through the portal that allow SPs to integrate the channels into their navigation systems.
Right now there’s no easy way to for service providers to work with content owners to bring a vast wealth of widely scattered video content together into coherent niche channels as part of the TV experience, notes Mike McGuire, research vice president for Gartner’s Media Industry Advisory Services. “The idea of creating a marketplace where broadcasters and service providers can negotiate directly with content owners to build and integrate their own specialized, over-the-top channels is the kind of innovation that is needed,” McGuire says.
As described by Hashkes, the ITX platform includes tools content providers can use to create real channels rather than simply gluing together a patchwork of content pieces. This allows small operations, including even individuals such as celebrities with a desire to create a TV outlet, to put together channels with a professional look, including logos, scheduling and much, he says.
The exchange provides a way that these content supplier can expose their new channels to service providers everywhere without having to gain entry to and negotiate separately with each individual company. “We’ve abstracted what content deals are all about into an easy-to-use template that allows parties to negotiate all aspects of the deal through the portal,” Hashkes says. “They can specific which geographic areas channels can be distributed to, what types of devices, what if any upfront payments are required, revenue sharing on advertising or direct subscriber payment, the duration of the agreement, etc.,” he explains.
While the exchange could support on-demand business models for individual pieces of content, “we don’t see VOD libraries as big business right now,” Hashkes says. Rather than individual niche pieces getting lost in a sea of unrelated content, their aggregation into channels of interest to even the smallest audience groups ensures greater exposure in the TV realm, he adds.
“Mostly this is stuff the content owners don’t know what to do with,” he continues. “They’re already selling some of it into large VOD libraries, including online libraries like Netflix where they get pennies in return.”
Since putting ITX together about four months ago, NDS has had a strong reception from the content community, Hashkes says. “Our business development team has been out there at events like NATPE and MIP waving the flag for ITX, which we officially launched this month,” he comments. “Every content owner we go to and even those we didn’t plan to go to are all buying into this.”
To get things going NDS has already pulled some of the content amassed on the platform into 50 niche channels. Eventually, Hashkes says, “we expect many thousands of channels will be created through the system.”
Working simultaneously on the apps front, NDS is promoting the Service Delivery Platform as a way to allow legions of developers to create applications that will allow SPs to deliver a unique branded experience to devices purchased by their subscribers. “Operators provide extremely good service to the set-top box with navigation and many conveniences,” says Nigel Smith, chief marketing officer at NDS, “but they’re coming up against quite a large consumer demand to view content on other devices that are broadband connected, for which they have no real answer right now.”
SDP acts as an interface between apps on devices, a service provider’s TV platform and social networks or other Internet content, Smith explains. The goal is to create a new universal TV development marketplace to streamline development of apps that not only support distribution of content to devices of all descriptions, he says. Equally important, operators want apps that enable companion device functionalities to control the TV viewing experience and facilitate contextual delivery of additional content, information and social networking features that can work in tandem with what’s delivered to the TV.
“The key to the platform is the two-way communications model, enabling not only content on devices, but that crucial link between the device and the operator platform, including the set-top box, so that it becomes a companion to the viewing experience.” Smith says. “The SDP fosters a symbiotic relationship that allows operators to drive service adoption through the apps, whilst enabling developers to generate revenue and provide subscribers with an enriched experience.”
By utilizing device SDKs and app stores, SDP negates the need for per-device and per-service integration, enabling the operator to present new services and content on a rapidly expanding number of connected devices, he explains. The platform uses intelligent mechanisms to ensure that content and metadata are retrieved from the most appropriate source, whether the operator platform or Web-services such as movie databases or catch-up TV sites. Devices and individual subscriptions are recognized by the SDP, allowing the delivery of appropriately formatted content in accord with device specification and the terms of the user’s pay-TV subscription.
This is a tall order, given the proliferation of device formats and functionalities such as digital rights management and adaptive streaming that specific to each device. Or, as Smith puts it, noting cable operators’ experience with working with just a handful of set-top models, “You can’t take a vertical approach in a horizontal space.”
“There are about 300 or so devices with video and broadband capabilities coming on the market every six month,” he notes. “To be able to support all that is a major challenge for cable companies.”
With a Web services API such as SDP provides that affords app developers access to SPs’ content and attendant metadata, operators can foster horizontal development across all devices while leaving the responsibility for supporting the device to the developers. “If someone develops an app for the iPhone that allows subscribers access to Bloomberg Television and it doesn’t work properly, the email from the customer goes to the developer, not the operator,” Smith notes.
The infrastructure NDS has developed to support this new marketplace is very technical but open and accessible to everyone, adds Nick Thexton, senior vice president of new initiatives R&D at NDS. “Developers can go to the operator and say, ‘We’ve prepared an app to do x,y,z; will you allow us to access your content so we can deliver the app to work with your platform?’” Thexton says. “SDP provides the mechanisms for scaling developers’ efforts so they can roll out apps on multiple platforms working across silos.”
“App developers can sit a long way away from having any knowledge about how the operator’s plant works,” he continues. “They don’t need to know how the set-top box or the OS on the set-top works. It’s all done automatically.”
In some respects it’s like what Canoe Ventures and the cable industry have developed to facilitate wide-scale dissemination of applications on the EBIF (Enhanced Binary Interchange Format) platform, he adds. “But you could argue SDP goes further and deeper because it takes your engagement beyond the set-top box.”
There’s a multiplier effect that will come into play as well, Thexton notes. For example, NDS has created a “TV magazine” app for the iPad enabling its use as a remote control and also as a platform for consuming core programming as well as content that’s complementary to whatever the user is watching on TV. “We’ve built all those functions to reside in the SDP back office so that it will take very little time for developers to come along and build additional apps to work with the same set-tops,” he says.
The SDP is designed to accommodate the application of DRM, adaptive streaming, user information, formatting and coding requirements suited to each device. “Behind the API we have all these capabilities,” Thexton explains. “We have a device abstraction layer so that when the device connects to the platform you just have to input the DRM to be used, the resolution of the screen, what type of encoding you want to use and other essential information about the device. Then the platform creates the template to put the content in that format as it’s distributed from the headend. It’s a full workflow management system, and the beauty is it doesn’t touch the broadcast platform at many points. The operator can go from zero support for multiple devices to being quite well advanced just using this platform.”
Many key templates have already been developed to support the most popular devices in the market today, including the Apple family and Android-based devices. Now that the platform has been launched it will go into beta testing with customers, Thexton says. “The primary thing is to get the ecosystem engaged and working with operators to bring applications to market,” he adds.