Android TV: The Future of Television?
There's the traditional operator set-top box (STB), and then there are streaming devices for OTT, and the two are usually seen in competition. Google's Android TV platform bridges the two by aggregating broadcast content with streaming services, giving pay-TV operators a fighting chance to take back control of the remote.
Google has signed up more than 160 operators worldwide, including AT&T, Bouygues Telecom, J:COM, and LG U+, to deliver on the Android TV platform to fight consumer flight from pay-TV services, which, last year, were in use in 65.3% of U.S. households, down from a high of 87.8% 10 years earlier. Similar trends have played out in other countries.
"Android TV provides operators with a full-stack operating system to help them build a complete TV experience for subscribers, bringing linear TV and streaming services to one place, accessible by voice," says Shobana Radhakrishnan, director of engineering for Android TV at Google. "Operators get first billing on their own systems." Plus, their consumers get search, voice, content discovery, personalization, interface customization, Android app store connectivity, and even smart home control as standard features. "This helps operators bring a full entertainment package to subscribers that goes beyond traditional paid services," Radhakrishnan says.
"Classically, a streaming provider would be used to having their whole user experience contained in an app, like a Netflix or YouTube. It's an app icon somewhere or button on the remote control, and once the user enters that, the user experience starts. The pay-TV operators are much more used to the whole device experience [being] branded and [a] focus on their service," says Sascha Prüter, chief product officer at Vewd. Some operators completely design the user experience and have it branded the exact way they prefer, like AT&T with its TV Now service.
Hey, Google, how does this impact consumers? The first step was to make this as plug and play as possible. New pay-TV customers can often get up and running without human interaction if the STB can automatically connect online to the home router. Viewers enter credential information and, depending on the service, can personalize the experience if the provider asks for additional details.
"We believe operators know their subscribers best and are therefore best-suited to build the right TV service for them. The key element was giving operators the flexibility to build a custom launcher and replace the Google standard launcher, thus owning the user experience while still offering all the capabilities of the platform," says Radhakrishnan.
Making STBs Smart
Older cable devices simply couldn't handle all the functionality that today's multitasking modern customer seeks, such as app use; DVR, live, and catch-up viewing; higher-resolution delivery; and smarter personalized programming. "A lot of [operators] tried to do that with a legacy STB, but the system was not really application-oriented by design," says Hervé Creff, business development director at Broadpeak.
One big plus is that development for the Android TV platform is done via web technologies instead of platform-specific development languages. "They're utilizing a technology that's already well-known by developers," says Thomas Christensen, CEO of Nordija. "Our user interface [UI] does not exist on the set-top box until it's turned on and pointed towards our portal, on the operator's own network or in the cloud. Then the whole user experience is downloaded and delivered in classic web HTML format.
Because Android TV uses HTML, you don’t need to load a full user interface onto the device, meaning it can work within the memory available on a wide range of devices, according to Thomas Christensen of Nordija, whose Android TV implementation is shown here.
"The point of using HTML is it's dynamic, so you don't need to load the full UI onto the device—only what's needed. For something like an EPG (electronic programming guide), you don't have to download the full seven days' worth of data for 600 channels," says Christensen. This means that Android TV can work on the memory available on a wide range of devices.
"It's a software layer, so that gives it a lot of advantages in terms of being able to be deployed in many additional areas, even like things like soundbars," says Tom Schaeffer, president and CEO of Float Left Interactive. "It has access to Google's services, so when you're part of Android TV, you're tapping into that wide range of various services."
Search is one service that's crucial to getting viewers to watch more, responding to user input by text or voice and featuring the ability to set preferential business rules. For instance, the integrated Google Assistant voice control could return search results that were tailored to WarnerMedia's content. A provider like AT&T could highlight its own featured content and streaming apps within the programming guide, as well as other third-party apps that either came with the offering or were installed by viewers.
Providers like AT&T can customize Google Assistant’s voice control to highlight their own featured content and apps within the programming guide.
"The other thing that we can actually do is deliver a differentiated user experience. Operators can do a multi-branded approach where they're going to have a different user interface for premium customers and a sub-brand focusing more on skinny bundles and a discounted package," says Christensen. Android TV is a multi-branded, multi-tenant platform and reduces development costs, providing standardization to make it simpler to develop and deliver versions of services because it's all running off the same back end.
"Another critical component of staying relevant and becoming more successful is the ability to adjust the user experience continuously," says Christensen. "We can do this kind of A/B testing and roll out a new user interface for a subset of your users—like all the employees of the telco could try it out before you let it go in the wild.
"The test environment and production environment are not usually the same. There's a load factor that's very hard to simulate. Typically, a tech environment has an ability to perform a load test for 50,000 concurrent users. If the production environment is 2 million, you don't really know how it's going to react," says Christensen. "The most important part is, if you want to roll out gradually and monitor how well it's going, that's where you want to use the idea of segmenting your customers. These slow rollouts with monitoring incoming data can test out how someone might respond to a different user experience, varying ad load, alternative versions of the EPG, or access to different content. You have to read the data you're getting back on how it's being used by the different segments, and then try out new stuff." That "new stuff" could be a personalized user experience, or it could be the provider creating partnerships to super-serve viewers.
OTT service XUMO has benefited from being a preinstalled app in Android TV environments, says Anthony Layser, the company's VP of partnerships and programming. "Viewers can simply turn the TV on and start streaming without having to download anything," he says, adding that viewers can find XUMO's channels in the TV's program guide as well as in the XUMO app. The fact that XUMO content can be found with a minimum amount of effort means the company didn't have to develop the extensive marketing campaign that would be required to convince consumers to download an app. (XUMO's app is available for download in the Android TV channel store, but Layser says it accounts for a very small percentage of the service's overall usage.) "It's so critical to have good real estate within these environments to have some guaranteed marketing or guaranteed placement," says Layser.
As of Christmas 2019, 45 million TVs in the U.S. included a XUMO native integration. "Nearly 11 million households were monthly active users," says Layser. This figure means that a little bit less than 25% of households were converted into monthly active users.
The Battle Over Search
It's crucial that streaming services make the right metadata available to the operator. "[U]niversal search across all sources available to the consumer is always the holy grail," says Prüter. "Universal search is not 100% universal. There are still services who don't want to participate in a universal search." There has always been a struggle over who owns the consumer and gets access to metadata—some content providers want viewers to go into their app, while Google would prefer the consumer use its search.
"[Google] didn't do the integration at the application level, but at the content level," Prüter says. "They use deep linking. When you navigate by the operator's application, all of the content, including content delivered by streaming applications, is available within a single EPG or navigation."
This content shortcut is both appealing and very efficient for the customers. "When you finish, viewers will go back to the UI as guided by the operator," says Creff. "It would be completely clear that something was provided by Netflix, for example. If there is the same content being provided by several providers, all of them would appear. The user could choose."
Data Collection 101 for Pay-TV Operators
It's very hard to produce a random viewer profile—service providers need a foundation to build on to help identify if a viewer likes news, action thrillers, documentaries, or kids' content. "We definitely want to create incentives for people to register for free, store that information, and try to build profiles from that," says Schaeffer. Building this relationship is a greenfield experience for some operators. "They didn't have that opportunity to have that relationship with their users when they were being delivered by traditional cable operators," Schaeffer says.
Ask any streaming provider, and they'll say that capturing and using the right analytics can deliver a whole slew of advantages, but this is a new approach for the pay-TV world. Subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service providers that have been going direct to consumers have acquired their own viewing data, based on what people view, for how long, when, and other details.
Today's streaming TV providers don't know what tomorrow's viewers will want, which is why Android TV was created with a modular approach that allows for fast updates.
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