Insights

Breathe New Life into Old Boxes

Director, Media Solutions, Europe
Valtech

June 02, 2016

The shortcut for cable and satellite TV operators on reducing the Total Cost of Ownership in a multiscreen, multiplatform ever-changing OTT and TV Everywhere landscape.

Although everyone is talking about OTT and TV everywhere, the number one screen for viewing video content is still the big screen TV­– usually placed in a central position in the living room, with furniture all neatly pointing towards it. This setting will not likely change much during this, or even the next decade, so offering a high quality viewing experience for big screen TVs should still be the key objective for cable and satellite TV operators.

However, it strikes me slightly odd that my own set-top box that came with my cable subscription hasn’t had any updates to either user interface or features since I got the box almost 6 years ago. The set-top box is responding extremely slow when pushing the remote (even when you push the remote control button really hard) and the general user interface not only looks dated, but also requires the end user to have a mind of a 1990’s engineer to figure out how to operate it.

Consumers today are accustomed to apps on their smartphones or tablets that update regularly

Consumers today are accustomed to apps on their smartphones or tablets that update regularly and are often even unprompted by the user, providing them with constant and enhanced user-experiences updates. This experience may leave the same consumer to feel that cable or satellite operators don’t care to update their own platforms any longer. On the same hand, the consumer is also bombarded with apps from pure OTT services that offer a user centric user interface and, in general, a high quality service. This is a very interesting situation.

Even though the consumer might not know anything about rapid (an agile software development processes) the results speak for themselves when comparing an OTT app with a set-top box experience. OTT apps are usually intuitive, simple to use and offer premium features like personal recommendations. Set-top boxes usually struggle with just providing a user-friendly interface.

Why do traditional product development cycles for boxes fail?

Having worked on several set-top box development projects myself, I know the challenges operators, manufactures, vendors and integration partners are facing during the development stages. Projects usually start with a huge scoping phase where vendors fly in from across the globe to determine if all the components will fit together. The time spent doing this is monumental and occurs before the design phase has even started. Also, the more vendors that are involved in the process, the bigger the bill will be which makes the total cost impossible to foresee and budget.

Since the scope of the project will eventually change during development and the final invoice will be even higher, this uncertainty eventually causes the product owner to be hesitant about implementation changes. The Agile process is open for changes during development without causing all vendors to re-estimate their SOWs and/or work orders. Given that the usual timeline for similar projects are exceeding 18 months, the final software for the set-top box is outdated even before it is pushed on to the box. This means that the overall scope is never agreed upon and is constantly in development, even after being launched.

Start small and important

Having the right development process is key to avoiding shaky implementations, escalating costs and outdated product development initiatives. By combining the methodologies from MVP (Minimal Viable Product) and Agile software development, you are able to avoid the traditional broken set-top box development cycle.

Use MVP to facilitate your product backlog. Establish what the most important features are to get up and running and then put them into a sprint.

From here you are basically ready to start your set-top box software development by adding more items to the backlog, based on the importance/priority of the subject. As soon as you have a commercially viable and testable prototype up and running, you can start running the first Alpha test against your head-end (which is how broadcasters send TV signals) or playout services and even include users while testing to get feedback first-hand.

When introducing an agile development process for your set-top box software development project, you will inevitably reduce time to market with a significant factor and reduce cost dramatically by keeping your product up-to-date with user expectations– even while in development.

If you think this explanation is a little too simplified and too good to be true– keep reading. Your “eureka moment” is coming up...

Set-top box first

You have properly heard the expression “mobile first,” a typical cliché when working with multiscreen product development. This basically refers to scoping the initial product development while using a smart phone as an initial target platform, since the smart phone will be the most important device in the near future.

However, this is obviously not valid in OTT and TV Everywhere solutions where the most popular and most used device still is the set-top box. So we say, “STB first.”

Historically, no one considers set-top boxes as a part of the general list of devices to target within OTT, Set-top boxes traditionally run on partly proprietary technology and in some cases use legacy IPTV infrastructure to deliver video streams. The gap is too large between tablet/smartphones and set-top boxes, from a technologist point of view, and is too much of a hassle to be developed by the same product development team.

Valtech recently partnered with You.i, a user-interface engine based on gaming technology that enables true cross platform capabilities.

Now this is about to change. Valtech recently partnered with You.i, a user-interface engine based on gaming technology that enables true cross platform capabilities. With a single codebase you can export your application for almost every device, including: set-top boxes, tables, smartphones and gaming consoles.

Going further in detail, this essentially means that you can reuse the programming application code used in your tablet app to run on your set-top box. Just like new releases on your iPad app, the exact same code and business logic can be made available on your set-top box. So, if you want to change how a specific business rule is handled in your offering, then simply do the change in a single place and deploy this change to all your target platforms. This is a radical change on application development, especially for devices such as set-top boxes that have been historically hard to develop and maintain.

All of this is possible due to the You.i engine’s low-level cross-platform compiler that is based on a technology adopted from the gaming industry. It is able to export your application to any platform targeting the GPU inside the device. The results are super responsive apps that enable designers to use gaming user-interface features like transparent graphics on top of video and true 3D graphics. This is also why You.i recommends graphic designers to build their user interface designs using Adobe After Effects (a motion graphics, video effects compositing tool) as their favourite weapon of choice when designing a rich user-interface across screens to combine branded visuals, motion graphics and animation into a compelling user experience.

Hello Valtech

If you want to know more about how your organization can breathe new life into your existing set-top boxes while simultaneously deploying the same application codes for your iPad, iPhone, Android and ConnectedTV apps, or you want to hear about how Valtech has helped other media companies like, BBC, Comcast or Turner, then please contact us.