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The OTT Ecosystem Needs an Open Platform

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First, the good news. The global OTT and VOD market has attracted hundreds of millions of viewers, and there are multiple ways to connect with them. The potentialfor engaging viewers with targeted advertising and for delivering the content they want, when they want it, is almost endless.

Today's content delivery ecosystem presents opportunities to build powerful relationships with viewers, which results in increased engagement. Put simply, deeper engagement makes a video provider’s service more “sticky” for the viewer. And the more a provider knows about an audience or specific viewer, the better content can be curated for them. 

The bad news? In an attempt to realize this great potential, the industry is becoming increasingly complex. If we look at the level of innovation progressing every year—new capabilities, new technologies, and now with AI and machine learning—the possibilities continue to grow, but there's a huge difference between what's theoreticallypossible and what is realistically implementable. That presents us with an enormous challenge.

And then there's the competitive pressure. The traditional television and video business isfacing massive competition because the Internet has lowered the barriers for direct-to-consumer content delivery, causing a high level of viewer churn. And how do you fight viewer churn? You have to make sure that the experience that your viewers receive is better than what the next guy can give them.

Obvious? Yes; Easy? No.

Growing Complexity

If we think through the video delivery process, the video enters the system through a content ingestion process, after which it's sorted, modified for playback on all kinds of devices and networks, and metadata-tagged. After that, it's published to an origin server where it can be streamed via content delivery networks (CDNs). But content workflow and preparation is only the beginning. Sure, people can play it, but how do they know it is there? And are they even interested? 

This is where merchandising comes in. How do we position, price, and promote the content? Do we use the poster that promotes star A or star B?  How do we use the content metadata with the information that we have about particular subscribers’ interests? What about the contextual information, like time of day, subscriber location, and what they might be doing—and is it a weekend or a weekday? This information will have a direct impact on what the viewer may be interested in “right now.” 

Of course, we also have to think about the actual playback experience, and measuring all of the relevant aspects of that. How long did they watch? Did they stick through the ads? Which ones? Did they abandon after they saw the same ad for the third time? Was there a playback quality issue that caused them to abandon playback—or was it the content? Is there a common thread (or threads) that tie together the viewer’s preferred items? And optimizing the playback experience can also mean real-time content analysis and processing to extract the “right” quality from the fewest number of bits. This is a continuous, ongoing process well-suited to machine learning. 

As an industry, we've been so focused on the technology of streaming—just making it work—that we haven't thought nearly as much about the opportunities for new service creation and the associated monetization potential. As we address the underlying data plane complexities, and automate the management and control aspects of OTT video playback, we can begin to focus on the service creation and personalization potential that was impossible in the broadcast world.

Building Blocks Emerge

From a data plane perspective, progress is being made to address the complexity challenges. Core building blocks are now offered by multiple vendors, including AWS, Microsoft, Google, and many others. Storage, transcoding, DRM, streaming servers, and more can all be integrated to provide a comprehensive OTT data plane solution. Components are available for managed and unmanaged cloud-based infrastructure, in-house infrastructure, and even hybrids.

But something is still missing.

I would argue that today’s video platforms look a lot like the nascent PC market. The prevalent video platforms being used by service providers today are purpose-built from the ground up. They may be on clouds, and they may use common pieces for the data plane, but from the control and management aspects of it, they are all islands unto themselves—closed, proprietary systems.

Companies like Netflix and Comcast in North America (with the X1 platform) have arguably some of the most advanced video provider infrastructure platforms in use, but they are proprietary. A company that innovates a new service or feature capability cannot readily deploy it on any “standard” video platforms. They must work with each platform vendor to integrate it. This is similar to the lack of software portability and scale economics that existed when the Apple II, Radio Shack TRS80, Commodore 64, and Amiga “personal computers” existed. The market fragmentation limited innovation, adoption, and cost reduction.

The open video provider platform does not exist today. Things are looking good at the data plane level, but in management and control, we're missing the cohesive management building blocks, the things every provider needs: content and metadata management/enrichment, viewer session management, and the core capabilities that support the ever-increasing personalization requirement. Personalization is, simply put, a massive big data problem, in which the system must find the overlap between the available content (which also includes ad content), the viewer’s interest, and the situational context. And it must do this for every individual, in real time. 

Well-developed, open API control and management plane tools can provide the critical data glue that binds providers, the subscribers, and the advertisers. I would take this a step further and say that this layer should be network agnostic. Whether the subscriber is on an IPTV network, a DOCSIS network, managed or unmanaged OTT, Fiber, HFC, LTE, QAM ATSC3.0, or 5G - it shouldn't matter. 

Continued Advancements 

The video industry was built on purpose-built infrastructure, so the networks and systems became monolithic in their structure. A cable company would build an infrastructure specific to its purpose. They'd dig up the roads, run cabling, install distribution systems and desktop boxes—everything in the process from A to Z. But just as the internet changed document distribution, telephony, and much more, it is redefining the entire TV/movie/video industry to its core. Long-established barriers that prevented different providers and even provider types to compete have evaporated. But to maximize the power of this new competition, barriers to innovation must be removed. Closed architectures are innovation barriers, because they limit the amount of brainpower that can be applied to a problem, and they limit the market breadth to which an innovation can be applied.

Consider what Netflix has accomplished in the age of internet. It developed an infrastructure that leverages cloud-based compute and storage resources to deploy its homegrown software-based workflow to convert videos into multiple formats for all the different types of players, and it created their own player software and its own tools for collecting statistics from the players. However, the Netflix platform’s continued innovation and advancement is inherently limited by the resources that it can independently assign to that mission. There's no third-party ecosystem that's going to drive it, let alone compete with it. Once again, we see the old “open vs closed” arguments emerge.

The Drive for Open

If the industry is to continue to innovate, grow, and provide the best value and quality of experience, then we need to stop building closed machines. We should move toward open-platform, best-in-class infrastructure solutions that allow new application layer innovations to be quickly integrated across a wide spectrum of video infrastructure systems. Think “plugins.”We need control and management systems to quickly and easily integrate with a variety of data-plane capabilities, both on premise and cloud-based – transcoders, storage systems, CDNs, etc. Think “drivers.”  We need to identify the core management and control capabilities that any video provider needs. Think “video provider operating system.” 

For example, there's a lot of talk in the industry about machine learning and intelligence, and about how automated intelligence can help customers find the content that they want. Would this be a new core function? Should each service provider have to go through a costly integration to offer AI-driven recommendation to their customers? Should the innovator (often a startup) have to limit itself to one or two large customers due to its inability to support more than that?

Consider an organization that may want to create a platform that only provides quality, targeted content to a very narrow but critical audience. How would it begin to build something like this? How would it stay on the leading edge of features and capabilities? How would they leverage something like artificial intelligence into their platform without a budget and engineering team to rival Netflix and Amazon? 

A cloud-based, open video platform—much like a PC platform—would be able to facilitate this level of change. Indeed, any feature or capability addition could be quickly integrated into the system, and allow providers of all types and sizes to adapt their offer and streamline their data targeting in significant ways.

Technology is advancing exponentially, competition is fierce, and consumer expectations are placing more demands on providers today than at any other time in our industry's history. The days of developing monolithic, purpose-built, closed systems should be put behind us. For the health and advancement of the industry—and to deliver the best viewer/subscriber experience and value possible—a flexible, open core set of key provider functions is needed.  A video provider platform which can be easily built upon and enhanced with a variety of innovations, where viewers can have access to these innovations sooner, and providers can more quickly determine which of them viewers value, and which they don’t. It is time for a “purpose-built” platform built for this new, amazing, tumultuous world of video.

[This is a contributed byline from SeaChange International. Streaming Media accepts vendor bylines based solely on their value to our audience.]

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