It’s a common ritual: analysts, industry observers and other hangers-on always like to compare notes about what they see at conferences. Sometimes, it’s part of being social. Often, it’s part of the process of formulating your own opinions. Exhibiting vendors want to know how they are succeeding in new areas, and how they are doing against their competitors. All of this was very much the case at the 2011 International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam.
This year was at once evolutionary, revolutionary, and anticlimactic. A lot of people that I spoke with thought there was nothing “big” at this IBC. I beg to differ: multi-screen TV is real, it’s here, and it has moved through the science project, trial, and first deployment stages – into mainstream deployments and refinement – in less than a year.
Sure, we saw the beginnings of it a few years ago with all the buzz about video content delivered ‘over the top’ (OTT) via the open Internet – as something separate, experimental, a vague threat to pay TV, something to monitor from a distance. In fact, just nine months ago, I was involved in a project with an industry organization that was trying to encapsulate for its membership whether OTT represented a threat to pay TV operators or an opportunity.
Yet now, OTT and multi-screen delivery are simply two ingredients of ‘this complete pay TV breakfast.’ In my book, this rapid transition from ‘what is it?’ to ‘it’s table stakes!’ has been pretty revolutionary. As a result, virtually every TV middleware, encoder, and video security company had something ‘multiscreen’ to show at this year’s IBC. And the primary driver has not so much been the maturation of the enabling technologies – it has been social media. Vendors were sorted into two camps: those using IBC to announce pending or actual commercial multiscreen deployments, and those who were still talking about product roadmaps.
What was evolutionary? Although the first multi-format video encoders started showing up nearly a decade ago, their time has finally come with the multiscreen opportunity. It’s actually a very active area, as vendors race to support adaptive-rate streaming, multiple screen formats and aspect ratios, and to improve video quality – all while reducing energy consumption. In some American political circles, it still may not be cool to talk about ‘green’ technology, but if a company can cut thousands or even millions of dollars from its power bill, the ‘let the marketplace decide’ crowd should sit up and listen.
Competitive wins were another evolutionary phenomenon. One of the biggest was the announcement by Ericsson that it had won the IPTV business of Chunghwa Telecom, the Taiwanese incumbent Telco, which has nearly a million IPTV subscribers in service. For some years to come, Ericsson will operate alongside Alcatel-Lucent, where ALU was the sole incumbent vendor previously. As the TV world transitions from the living room to multi-screen, and as service providers outgrow their first-generation IPTV platforms, we will continue to see this from service providers of all sizes, worldwide.
Another evolutionary area is the now-mainstream recognition that the semiconductors residing in consumer devices – particularly in set-top boxes – are a key part of the end-to-end pay TV ecosystem. This stems from that fact that video security now resides on shipping chip-sets and that these ‘security blocks’ are now integrated with TV middleware and CAS systems, to control access to content and for output control. This situation stands to reduce costs for operators that can move from card-based to software-based video security.
Another IBC highlight was the inaugural ConnectedWorld.TV Awards, which were given in association with IBC, and for which I was one of the judges. We evaluated well more than 100 substantial entrants across 19 categories, and it was not merely a popularity contest. James Cameron and Vincent Pace (The Cameron Pace Group) were given a special award for their contribution to the broadcast industry.
Yet at the same time, 3D – a technology inextricably linked with James Cameron through his movies Avatar and soon, a 3D version of Titanic – seemed a bit anticlimactic. For the past few years, there has been at least one 3D feature on the bill at every movie multiplex. Cable, satellite and Telco (IPTV) providers alike trumpeted 3D sporting events. Set-top companies announced 3D software updates and published lengthy white papers. The past two IBC (and NAB) shows were full of companies demonstrating 3D video technologies.
But as I compared notes with others – both at the Awards dinner, and at IBC at-large – there was some irony in the fact that none of us seemed to notice 3D quite so much this time at IBC. Even the circular glass projected 3D TV demonstration that’s between Halls 1 and 7 every year was missing. (Did you see it? I didn’t). You would get a flash of recognition from most people – ‘Wow, I hadn’t really thought of that, but it’s true!’ – when mentioning the lower profile of 3D this year. Yet Mr Cameron insists that the best years of 3D are yet to come. I hope he’s right because I, for one, enjoy it – and the industry has put a lot of time, effort and money into placing 3D into the mainstream. Maybe it’s that 3D is now so commonplace that we don’t notice it as much anymore.
So, what’s going to be big next year? In my opinion, it will be home gateways. Although service providers have talked about establishing a ‘beach-head’ in the home for many years, the compelling reason is finally emerging: the need to transcode commercial and home media content for consumption across multiple device environments while maintaining content protection for the commercial side. Multi-screen may be the catalyst, but it remains to be seen whether consumers will accept such a camel’s nose in their home tents.