By Fred Dawson
As coping with device fragmentation becomes an ever bigger headache for multiscreen pay TV service providers the challenge they all face is to find solutions that not only meet today’s needs but will hold up over time.
That’s a tall order given how fast the device population has multiplied over the past two years, driven primarily by the success of the Google Android operating system. According to a report released this spring by OpenSignal, a provider of cellular signal coverage maps, there are now 11,868 distinct Android devices running on the eight versions of Android that have emerged since the original Cupcake launch in April 2009, compared to 3,997 distinct devices a year ago.
With Android now accounting for a 70 percent share of all smartphones sold in the past year and surpassing iPad on the tablet side as of Q3 2012, the open-market approach that is inspiring device fragmentation appears likely to continue unabated. Having run the course with the Jelly Bean version of Android, the latest iteration of which was released in July, Google is preparing to launch a new version, Key Lime Pie, which had been anticipated for release this year but will probably not debut until early 2014.
Apple is continually updating its iOS as well, of course, but the impact on device fragmentation is much less significant, owing in part to the tighter consistencies among iOS versions compared to Android and in part to how quickly Apple’s new releases gain traction. OpenSignal reports iOS 6, released in September 2012, is now running on 95 percent of all iOS devices, whereas, Android Jelly Bean, released in July 2012, is running on 37.9 percent of all Android devices while 23.3 percent are running Ice Cream Sandwich, released in December 2011. Notably, 34.1 percent are still running Gingerbread 2.3, released in 2010.
In the grand scheme of things, parameters that matter most for streaming video to these devices are fairly stable, including which type of adaptive bitrate (ABR) streaming format is used (HLS for iOS and Android – although Gingerbread and earlier versions of Android don’t use HLS – and Smooth for Microsoft Windows OS). The requirements for digital rights management (DRM) systems and the baseline transcoding resolutions for different device categories are also fairly stable.
But as ever more variations in screen sizes, modes of graphics rendering, modes of wirelessly connecting devices for various types of apps, types of app functionalities and other details serve to differentiate one device from the next, video the climb gets steeper for service providers. Their ability to achieve maximum reach for new features and apps within their services is dependent on their ability to accommodate such details.
Generally speaking, the approaches VSPs can take to deal with the fragmentation issue fall into three categories:
- distribution of advanced client software that supplements native device players on all authenticated devices to address the intricate details associated with rendering content, apps and advertising in ways appropriate to each device;
- outsourcing of these tasks to suppliers of video publishing platforms;
- implementation of edge-based network intelligence capable of tuning each stream to the idiosyncrasies of each device on the fly without requiring specialized client software.
All these solutions are now in play with VSPs’ multiscreen service initiatives across the globe. Examples of the edge-based approach previously reported in these pages, all with significant technical variations, include solutions supplied by SeaWell Networks, Envivio and Akamai. Oft-reported turnkey solutions include those supplied by thePlatform, Irdeto, Neulion, and Microsoft Azure Media.
Each of these providers and others in their camps offer means to address the fragmentation issue specifically but also bring other important benefits into play with their solutions. For example, edge-based systems significantly reduce the number of streams that must be delivered via ABR streaming technology from transcoders in the headends by performing the ABR fragmentation, DRM applications, ad placements and other device-specific functionalities at the edge.
Nonetheless, many VSPs which started down the multiscreen path by configuring their services with client apps specific to smartphones and tablets running Apple iOS prefer staying the course as they move to live and on-demand streaming of virtually all content to Android and other classes of devices. But to make this strategy work they must avoid having to configure a new piece of player software for every new generation of device that enters the market.
One suppler that has found a ready market for such solutions is Accedo, which, as previously reported, has developed TV Everywhere reference apps on every major device platform from smart TVs and game consoles to tablets and smartphone. By integrating its TVE template with a broad range of online video publishing platforms, ad networks, analytics packages, transcoding and streaming system and other components, the company allows customers to work with their choice of such providers to create the consumer experience that suits their needs across multiple devices.
Another approach to app-based solutions for VSPs, supplied by VisualOn, is also gaining traction, with Cablevision, Comcast and Swisscom listed as customers from the VSP side along with OTT customers like Netflix, Hulu, CBS Interactive and MobiTV. For example, according to VisualOn senior director of marketing Deepak Das, Cablevision has implemented the company’s OnStream MediaPlayer + platform to support streaming of pay TV content to all types of Android devices in and beyond the home. Netflix, too, is using the platform to get its content to Android devices.
“Cablevision took our SDK and slapped their interface on top of that,” Das says. “This isn’t a companion device app; it’s the actual streaming app that works for their subscribers who are relying on Wi-Fi in the home and on the Cablevision network throughout Northeast to access content from their Android devices.”
VisualOn, which began in 2003 as a supplier of software-based decoding solutions for devices running on ARM processors, branched out in 2010 to address the other challenges emerging with the streaming of high-value content to multiple types of devices, starting with the issues posed by multiple versions of Android. Today VisualOn’s multimedia player development kit enables cross-platform content delivery and playback on many brands of connected devices, including mobile handsets, tablets, desktops, connected set-top boxes, and smart TVs, Das says.
The platform supports all the major operating systems, including Android versions 2.2 through Jellybean, iOS 4.0 and beyond, Windows Phone and Windows and Mac desktops. It works with all the major streaming protocols, audio/video file formats and codecs.
As Das notes, there is a huge amount of processing that goes into assuring a high-quality pay TV experience across multiple connected devices. “When you’re delivering premium content you need to have a consistent user experience across all devices,” Das says. “When the user clicks and plays, the player has to fetch the encrypted encoded data and be able to decode and debrypt it with the right key from the right DRM. It has to demultiplex and do the decoding separately for the audio and video component.”
The player framework must be able to accommodate the requirements of the data source module, which is the head of the client that receives the encrypted stream and parses metadata in the stream to ensure things like closed captioning, subtitles, advertising and interactive features are supported in sync with the content stream. “It has to be able to handle any post processing and manage time stamps,” Das says. “Maybe the player has to implement Dolby simulated surround sound. All this has to be rendered and executed with perfect timing.”
VisualOn’s SDK enables delivery of a uniform viewer experience across multiple end points with a small memory footprint and runtime memory usage, he adds. It is designed to support easy integration with third-party DRM engines and comes with an off-the-shelf PlayReady solution.
“People take our SDK and throw their skin on it, create a library flow to supply the individual player requirements for each device and set up the log-in processes,” he says. “It eliminates the need to create multiple backend processes.”
The VisualOn client also plays a major role in augmenting QoS, he adds. “It has the ability to sense the CPU, network congestion and signal strength so that if it can’t play at the resolution the customer is demanding, it will control the flow to operate at the next best alternative that can be supported by the network,” he says. The platform also provides analytics feedback to help operators track performance, he notes.
Das acknowledges the tendency among VSPs has been to develop their own interfaces and authentication processes to work with native player software in support of delivering TV Everywhere services to specific types of devices. “The first thing we hear from customers who haven’t thoroughly investigated the challenges is, we don’t need you guys; we can do it ourselves,” he says.
“Six months later they’re knocking on our door once they understand they can’t rely on native .players alone,” he adds. “We’re focused on enabling processing of apps at the core CPU level for all kinds of device types. They don’t have the resources to do that.”
Cablevision, with an aggressive TVE strategy entailing distribution to multiple types of devices outside as well as in the home, “is truly ahead in terms of thinking out of the box,” Das says. “They knew they couldn’t rely on the native client support, and they understood the complexity of building apps that would provide the support they needed. They wanted a single player that supports uniform playback on all devices.”
The VisualOn SDK affords VSPs a modular approach to building TVE apps, allowing them to integrate what they already have in place with the things they need from VisualOn, he notes. In Cablevision’s case, “When you log into that app the basic log-in framework is done by them,” he says, “but from the moment the app hits play, that’s when our app takes over and renders the video core for their customers.”