January 20, 2014 – One of the big questions posed by developments highlighted at the Consumer Electronics Show is whether the HDMI stick is going to disrupt pay TV service migration to the point where a lot of hard-laid plans in the set-top space are left behind.
Nothing better illustrated the disruptive potential of the miniature devices than Alticast’s introduction of a hybrid HDMI/USB-stick solution that leverages the vendor’s in-the-cloud middleware and client software with 802.11 ac Wi-Fi to deliver a full lineup of pay TV programming along with OTT content to TV sets, Android devices and PCs. As demonstrated with cloud renderings of pay provider UIs at a suite in Las Vegas, the solution delivers remote control prompted fast-channel changes on advanced navigation systems and instant transitions between the pay TV and OTT content options.
“It’s an exciting time, this time of disruption,” said Alticast CTO John Carlucci. “The Web and video will converge, and this is just another important step along the way in that disruption.”
Signs abound that the novelty introduced over the past year by Google with its $35 Chromecast dongle and others such as Roku and Sony to support TV access to an aggregation of OTT content apps will soon enter the pay TV market. Notably, Alticast, Cisco Systems, Netgear and other suppliers are leveraging the open APIs of the cable Reference Design Kit (RDK) to enable virtualization of the set-top in the cloud, thereby shrinking the processing load to dongle dimensions in the home.
At the same time suppliers focused on other corners of the pay TV market, especially in Europe, are introducing other iterations of the dongle strategy. For example, in early January Novabase Digital TV Technologies, a Portuguese firm, made known it had selected Sigma Designs’ system-on-a-chip (SoC) and French middleware vendor HTTV‘s httvLink platform for an HDMI Stick form factor IPTV set-top box with HbbTV capabilities. This was the first operator-class HDMI stick fully compatible with HbbTV, the widely deployed European platform that marries conventional TV with OTT content on set-tops and other devices.
At CES, Ken Morse, Cisco’s CTO for connected devices, pulled an HDMI stick out of his pocket in the midst of discussing a plethora of new set-tops and gateways on display at Cisco’s suite. “HDMI sticks are something that are going to become much more meaningful in the future,” Morse said, although he cautioned the Wi-Fi connections used with such a service must be “service-provider grade.” “It has to be guaranteed service,” he said, “and that’s one thing we’re working with our partners on.”
Also at CES, Netgear introduced its NeoMediacast HDMI Dongle with 802.11 ac Wi-Fi on board and capabilities such as 1080p/60 HD decoding and Miracast, which lets users send content from mobile device to the TV, saying the product will be launched in the first half of this year with support for Android devices. An RDK-compliant version is slated for the second half.
In some cases such devices will be positioned for sale directly to service providers, in contrast to the retail-distributed dongles from Google and other OTT players. But, even where the idea is to associate the dongle with a specific operator’s service, the retail channel could gain traction in ways that never happened with set-top boxes.
In fact, says Carlucci, some of Alticast’s customers abroad have begun using retail outlets to promote sale of devices tied to their services. “On an international basis we have been delivering different hardware in conjunction with our hardware partners through retail channels,” he said. “So, for instance, in Canada and other international markets there’s already an established retail relationship.” As a result, as Alticast’s customers deploy Alticast’s HDMI Media Express Stick solution “the consumer can go and buy this,” he said.
“One of the elements of the smart software in here is that it’s very agile in terms of changing the service provider,” he added. “So the cloud can download the right instance of software after identifying what network it’s working on. If you happen to migrate from one geography to another, and your provider of video services changes, you can still use the same device to engage with that new operator.”
Delivering the IP-based pay TV service from the cloud to older TV sets adds a further dimension to the cost-saving advantages of such a solution and, therefore, to the possibility of accelerating service migration to broadband, away from traditional QAM and IPTV-based transport. Asked whether low-cost off-the-shelf IP set-tops designed to interface with traditional digital TVs could be used to support the service, Carlucci replied, “Yes. We can bring that intelligence to a variety of different devices. I can plug this into the TV by the HDMI, but I can also use the USB port to plug into any USB-capable device and take over that screen as well.”
The advanced functionalities enabling interaction with Alticast’s Windmill software stack in the cloud require tight integration of Alticast software into the manufacturer’s HDMI stick chipset. But Carlucci made clear such integration can be accomplished across different hardware suppliers fairly easily, given the firm’s reliance on open protocols such as RDK.
“We work with hardware manufacturers and SoC vendors,” he said, “but we try to coalesce around different industry standard libraries for doing this so that it allows for the bring-up to go much more quickly. So rather than taking several years to go from initial concept to something that’s commercially deployed, we’re looking at going from initial concept to something that’s commercially deployed in six months, which was unimaginable before.”
Also speeding time to market is the fact that there’s far less unique software required for integration into the device. “It’s sharing a lot of software that’s already in the cloud,” Carlucci said.
What Alticast calls the “Windmill Ecosystem” is designed to work modularly to whatever degree a customer wants in the cloud or on a specific type of device, from dongles to home media gateways. In the extremely lightweight dongle environment, most of these capabilities reside in the cloud, including a personalized user interface supporting content discovery across broadcast and OTT content with recommendations and social networking engagement; high-performance middleware with modular support for HTML5, Android and various international protocols; DRM management; multiscreen advertising, and audience metrics.
“By doing this stuff in the cloud we can take advantage of brute computing and virtualization and technologies that we know how to scale and how to make very reliable,” Carlucci said. “And we can tap into those and do it at better economies than we’ve had for rolling out our services in the past.”
Security of high-value content is not an issue, he added. “We have our DRM system pre-integrated into [the dongle hardware]. So as the content comes across the network into this device it is secured and we’re taking care of the important needs of our content provider partners. Additionally, as this goes mobile and I stick it in my pocket and run around, the content on here is stored in a protected mode. So once again we preserve the integrity and the robustness of the security system.”
While there’s storage capacity on the device for several movies, one of the great benefits of the cloud-centered approach is the elimination of the need for a hard drive in the home, which Alticast made clear is part of its solution with demonstrations of cloud-based network DVR at CES. “I don’t have to have a large hard drive in this device, because I have that large hard drive located in the cloud,” Carlucci said. “I can access that large hard drive from anywhere.”