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Consumer Set-top Boxes Bring Value to the Enterprise

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For many years, streaming media providers have pursued a two-screen strategy for video-delivery systems: a player for PCs and a set-top box (STB) for television monitors in classrooms, conference rooms, homes, and other locations. Of course, two-screen solutions have given way to three-screen (smart- phone) and more recently four-screen (tablet) solutions. In other words, you can now pretty much get your media on whatever device you have, wherever you are, at any time.

Streaming to PCs, smartphones, and tablets is all basically the same thing. The difference is largely in the players (Silverlight, Flash, HTML5) and the streaming protocols to support the selected player(s). This is not to discount the difficulties in developing and supporting multiple technologies, but at the end of the day, the solution is simply a URL pointing to a server that delivers a webpage with the desired content. This is possible because of standardized, or de facto standardized, platforms. The fact that the same URL delivers highly complex client scripts and Ajax; works on Windows and Apple PCs in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome; and works on the iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, and other hardware is nothing short of amazing. Detecting the hardware and browser you use is trivial, and this allows the server to modify the offered technology to match your platform, such as delivering content using Flash to PCs and HTML5 to iPhones. There are many degrees of sophistication in video-delivery portals, matching and sometimes far exceeding the customer’s need.

But the set-top box for streaming media has been a headache for at least a decade. First, there is an expectation that a STB should cost about $100. That was true in 2001, and it is still the case. The expectation stems from consumer price points for cable TV STBs that are not only purchased in 100,000 unit volume by the cable TV operators but are subsidized by recurring cable TV revenues and service contract periods. Unless you are buying by the pallet-load, the STB manufacturers generally won’t talk to you. But you can buy smaller quantities of what they make, as long as you can live with the functions they built in for the large cable TV operator. You can’t expect the STB to behave like a PC or browser, nor should you—it is designed to operate with an infrared remote control, and every STB handles the keycodes differently. Expect only one format to be supported, typically not the one you need. It gets worse. The STB will typically have a life of 1 or 2 years, and then it will be discontinued and replaced by an incompatible model.

This is not censure of the STB industry, but rather an observation that the classic STB business model requires consumer volume to achieve the $100 price point—and that demand is not driven directly by the consumer but by private operators that each have a slightly different agenda and set of requirements.

The situation has improved since consumers have bypassed cable operators and have bought a million internet-connected STBs. These STBs allow access to popular subscription-based over-the-top content providers such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, but they also include the ability to receive your own content. Roku, for example, gives a simple channel-based interface where the consumer can add public and private channels as desired. For less than $100, Roku has done for STBs what Apple did with apps, allowing anyone to create his or her own content channel. Companies such as Float Left Interactive have built a business creating channels for Roku, Samsung, and other emerging internet STBs, just like hundreds of companies have formed to create iPhone apps for cus- tomers. Like with everything new, you need an understanding of the platforms, and it helps a lot to have some experience with STB behaviors. Today, you can contract with such a developer to create your own branded channel, or you can use new services that automatically list your content for you. In fact, STB channels are now available where you host the content, and the service is merely the STB listing.

This is good news indeed. We no longer need a private, enterprise-only STB that becomes unsupported after a year or so. Enterprises can now use a less-than-$100 consumer STB and view private, password-protected live and on-demand content delivered only in their private networks or over the public internet. Or, they can tune in to potentially thousands of public content channels.

This is an unexpected development. Over-the-top content delivery boxes such as Roku have begun to develop sufficient market mass to solve the enterprise and private STB-delivery problem. While these boxes have their warts (live content is HLS only, but unlike Flash the boxes do a good job with progressive download byte-range request navigation), they are likely to be available for more than a few years, and consumer volume only makes them more and more affordable.

The new class of internet STBs can deliver ads, subscription-based premium content, and other services. While newer Blu-ray players and digital TVs often come with built-in internet con- tent services such as Netflix, they are not open to third-party content providers or enterprise-level live and video-on-demand services. The STB is, and for only a hundred bucks, it appears to be the ideal solution for that fourth screen.

This article ran in the October/November 2011 issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "The Fourth Screen Solution."  

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