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Android TV: The Future of Television?

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Unless a content provider owns the software or equipment the content is distributed on, or unless it owns a back channel like a broadband connection, it won't necessarily get analytics back about what a user is watching, according to Prüter. "[OTT] providers obviously have a back channel—these apps talk back to their servers, and the app owner or content provider gets feedback about what their user is watching," he says.

So app providers know what's going on inside their app, but operators don't know what's going on inside these apps. "All that data, theoretically, whether that's being utilized or not, can be used for implementing some level of personalization," says Schaeffer. In the sign-up process, customers may provide more details on their interests or other data. "Creating better personalization is the future of these applications. I think that having a rich library of content is meaningless when you're serving that same static home screen to everyone," Schaeffer says.

"While sign-in is not required to use an Android TV device, it does give users access to a more personalized experience and is required to access Google Play to rent or buy movies, TV shows, and download apps," says Radhakrishnan. "Functionalities that do not require logging in include the Google Assistant, Chromecast, internet browsing, and YouTube." 

Users are able to visit their Google Account at any time to find and manage activity information that's saved, but they cannot view their Google Account on their Android TV device. "Google has one privacy policy across Google which breaks out the type of activity information that is shared and how. We collect information about activity in our services, which can be used to tailor and recommend content on the home screen," Radhakrishnan says. One of the big selling features of Android TV is voice control, and in order for it to work well, there needs to be a certain level of data about both the content, as mentioned earlier, and the user. Never has understanding data been so relevant to everyone in the media and communications industry.

The platform also supports multiple user profiles. "Typical metrics used by operators include daily and monthly active users, rate at which viewers tune into specific apps and shows, and average viewing hours across the platform," says Radhakrishnan. This is pretty typical of what most platforms are already capturing, but Google uses that data in innovative ways. "One of our core mantras is reducing/eliminating friction and barriers for users in completing their intended journeys," Radhakrishnan says. With this in mind, she notes that Google generally recommends the following:

  • Strong user experience research to precede product design
  • Strong usability evaluation when the product is tested internally and externally
  • A data-driven approach to evaluating effectiveness and user satisfaction, along with well-planned experimentation
  • Continual observation of trends and constant improvement of the productbased on user needs and feedback

"We are providing multilingual support for voice-enabled journeys using Google Assistant and work closely with content partners to provide certification and test support for international language programs based on their needs," says Radhakrishnan.

Dual Tuner Capability

A new opportunity for pay-TV operators is delivering broadband and broadcast together in one environment. By pre-integrating components, Google supported a faster time to market by providing a hybrid STB reference design at IBC2019. "We worked with three STB SoC [system-on-chip] vendors—Broadcom, Amlogic, Synaptics—to come up with standard specifications of a hybrid STB," says Radhakrishnan. "This means we use the same hardware beside the SoC: same Wi-Fi/BLE [short-range communication that allows devices to communicate with each other, in which battery life is preferred over high data-transfer speeds], demodulation and tuner, etc." Putting the hardware aside for a moment, what does this mean on the software side? The possibilities are compelling.

"The goal is to reuse what you have today in our DVB system, but to enrich the experience of those hundreds of millions of boxes that could support Android TV middleware," says Thierry Fautier, VP of video strategy for Harmonic. A satellite operator in India could once look at providing UHD. Now in India, as in many other places, providing HD, let alone UHD, content over OTT doesn't work. Fautier says, "It's too big and it costs too much money. Operators are telling us, ‘Bring us a solution, which is the best of both worlds, broadcast capability and interactivity of OTT.'

"We are using the existing setup box with dual tuner capability—IP and broadcast. Because we are using ABR [adaptive bitrate], we can address some TVs and set up boxes only with HD and other TVs or set top boxes with UHD. So when we publish the UHD ABR streams, the device would pick the resolution it can decode," says Fautier. "UHD was going to announce at NAB that there are now around 150 commercial UHD services in the world."

Harmonic is using the Common Media Application Format (CMAF)-DASH low-latency mode. "We can have the unicast and the broadcast views nearly aligned, meaning that you don't have these 30- to 45-second delays each time you switch from broadcast to unicast," says Fautier. 

"Today on my broadcast channel when there are multiple games on at the same time, there's only one view. The digital control under Android will allow showing 8 or 16 different windows of multiple games running at the same time. The EPG shows video of all the different channels. They even provide expert mode where viewers can select which camera they want. All those things that were not possible before using the Android TV framework," says Fautier. "When you select the game of interest for you, then you click on the window, and now we redirect you to the broadcast channel of these games." 

This would not be possible using a classical broadcast system. It also isn't possible in the regular Android MediaPlayer, because it requires ExoPlayer, which offers features not currently supported by the Android MediaPlayer's API, including DASH and Smooth Streaming adaptive playbacks. More details can be found at go2sm.com/exoplayer, and information about how to optimize apps for Android TV can be found at go2sm.com/androidtraining. 

Future Improvements

According to all of the experts interviewed for this article, the two most important things to make Android TV an even better platform are more visuals (and better quality video) and more metadata. "I think the number-one thing to negotiate with the content providers is to enrich the existing feed they get," says Fautier. "For example, today you receive ESPN and you will say to ESPN, ‘Can you give me the multiple views of the multiple cameras you have on your field, and I will pay you a bit more because I want to have more content to offer to my subscribers.'" That's not something covered in the current licensing. The same content provider is offering its own app with much more enriched content. "It's a bit tricky. It means that the content provider is starting to compete with the service provider," says Fautier.

"From day one, you get a very efficient platform, especially with respect to a new application aggregation," says Creff. "This is really an OTT platform designed for [on-demand] OTT ABR technologies." But while broadcasters are accustomed to using the multicast legacy MPEG transport stream, delivery is via an ABR format like CMAF, HTTP Live Streaming, or DASH. Broadcasters are then competing with SVOD services that have put huge resources into file optimization. The result is that local broadcasts may not look good as SVOD. "With respect to live TV, they are used to delivering linear TV at a very good quality using legacy technologies," Creff says. "Android TV has not been designed for that." 

Broadpeak Android TV

An example of an Android TV ecosystem, from Broadpeak

For universal search to work well, each and every OTT provider needs to deliver search metadata. Pay-TV operators with negotiating power can work with Netflix, for instance, to gain access to Netflix's metadata. The same would go for each and every video-on-demand (VOD) provider. "You would get all the metadata from Netflix in the cloud, and then you would merge this metadata … into a unified metadata database," says Creff. 

Metadata is what drives both personalization and search, so more metadata is always better. "Based on information we see, most users search on TV based on 'entity data,' e.g., a title, a director or actor, cast and crew, current events, or content app names. These are search types we prioritize and will continue to support on TV," says Radhakrishnan.

Market Share

So who is going to win the battle between pay TV and OTT? While the answer may vary depending on where you are, Android TV may be pay TV's best strategy. Time to market and cost savings for operators are both significant, even for a standard deployment without many customized bells and whistles. "You will be in a position to deploy your new box in three months," says Creff. "The total cost of ownership vs. legacy STB will save at least 30%."

Globally, Android STBs are in the lead and are making huge gains in Asia Pacific, Europe, and Latin America. In North America, Comcast's Reference Design Kit (RDK) is leading the STB market, according to Rethink Technology Research. "We believe that Android TV will surge to the top of the leaderboard with 24% of global pay TV subscriptions. In North America Android will meet stiff resistance from RDK which will take 57% of set top OS subs," according to the company.

While Google is getting operators signed up, usage so far is limited. A big hope is that Android TV will target global Android phone users (IDC reports the global mobile penetration as 86.1% Android) and that the mobile viewers will graduate from small screens to the larger ones. 

Google pitches this as an environment that is assistant-ready, content-forward, and commerce-friendly, because Google Assistant can perform search for VOD and live content, plus make purchasing additional content easy. The combination of providing an environment for pay-TV operators, supporting streaming apps, offering user experience customization, and connecting to voice control for a universal TV search across multiple services as well as controlling connected home devices and services makes the Android TV platform a compell­ing option. Whether pay-TV operators are your friend, enemy, or frenemy, this is their best bet for trying to actively engage and grow their userbase. 

While the competition between pay TV and streaming services will continue for the foreseeable future, Android TV can not only find content, but also dim the lights, check the thermostat, and create the ultimate lean-back environment where the viewer doesn't have to move to get things just right for watching. What's important for streaming companies now is to make sure they're as visible as possible in the new STB world, which may mean making friends with the competition. 

All of Google's documentation for Android TV can be found at go2sm.com/androidtv.

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