Ben Schwarz: Oh so maybe Android isn’t the answer to all TV’s woes after all

I was one of the first believers in Android as a cure to many TV woes. In early 2009, I predicted “… it’s always been a question of when, and not if, Google will enter the market with its Android for TV platform. As more major Internet players move into video, such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo!, this could be bad news for some of the middleware suppliers.”

Well four years on it looks like I’m still not right and might have to face the fact that on this one, I was downright wrong. Maybe Google isn’t going to succeed in the TV space after all; despite the countless millions it can spend trying.

During the IP Cable conference in Berlin at the end of 2012, I met someone who opened my eyes as to why I might indeed have been wrong all along.

Matthias Greve, CEO & managing director of ABox42, a manufacturer of IPTV & OTT STBs. ABox42’s software platform runs about a hundred different services like VOD, operator portals, YouTube apps, etc. Like a few other more established companies I sometimes write about, like SoftAtHome, one of ABox42’s key missions is to help operators survive the Apple/Google onslaught and come out fighting. When an operator wants to “go OTT”, ABox42 delivers the device part of the project as for example with the OTT platform of Kabelkiosk Choice, part of Eutelsat in Germany.

After four years of operation, the Karslruhe-based company has 40 employees and is still run with private equity.

Our discussion first centred on the fantasies operators had on the Google Android promise. There are usually three components:

  • easy development to speed up time-to-market,
  • easy porting to instantaneously cover a vast array of devices,
  • and endless supply of apps from Google’s Play Store

“The power of this dream is that you don’t have to worry about tough choices like streaming formats or which DRM to use. Android is the illusion of an easy way out of these tough choices”. If the dream could come true, operators would save the salary cost of an expensive CTO and could severely cut headcount within engineering teams.

But before we look into why this dream isn’t coming true, let’s remember what Linux was all about.

Linux should also deliver much of these promises, so I asked Matthias Greve why Linux-based boxes weren’t an alternative as they too promised standards and easy porting to next generation of devices. His answer was instantaneous “HTML & Linux always was an alternative, but only without the Apstore concept, there wasn’t that promise of en endless supply of aps”. So we see the all three components of the dream go together, remove just one and the other two don’t seem to carry enough weight.

So what are the challenges of working with Android on a real project?

“Android 2.2 was used for the first demos by STB makers barely two years ago, and today we are already beyond version 4.0. But looking back, real discussions about operator deals of any significance are no more than 12 months old. With Google’s timeframe things are moving way too fast for the STB lifecycles that are still usually about five years”.

iOS may be less unstable, still no major new application runs on iOS 4 now that iOS 6 is out. Apps are always supported on the latest version. Matthias was adamant that “the app development community isn’t interested in backward compatibility beyond two years max. So on a given hardware platform many third party apps start dying two years after launch. The promise of endless apps is much less compelling when you look carefully like this”.

Android is not designed for upgrading: in the mobile space a major new Android version requires a new phone. So for example Android 2.2 phones can’t usually run Android 4 due to changes in HW requirements. That is why an Android STB is unlikely to benefit from next big upgrades.

To make things worse, Google’s history of bug fixing in older Android versions isn’t a compelling one. “Right now their best developer are working on the latest 4.2 & 4.3 issues, so if you are stuck with a 4.0 bug there is little chance you’ll get it fixed by Google.”

According to Matthias Android was originally designed in reaction to iOS, as a disposable OS with a 2-year lifespan on any given platform, catering for the usual exchange cycle within the mobile phone market.

But with the lifecycle in the TV market, which is closer to 5 years, operators need to integrate new standards like MPEG-DASH maybe a year or so after the device is shipped to the market. This kind of requirement cannot be easily achieved with Android.

OK so why don’t TV set makers use Android?
Matthias pointed out that their core business model is in selling hardware, so Smart TV features have to work over the lifespan of the product, again, at least 5 years. Technically they see the same challenges described above, but unlike mobile phone makers, their platforms have to live at least five years.. Therefore their solution is to go to open Web standards like HTML and widely used streaming formats.

Matthias believes that several of the newer standards initiatives have been born out of this situation such as HbbTV, OIPF or the Smart TV Alliance, which are all originally based on non-proprietary technologies.

The future proof alternatives ABox42 sees for operators is to use devices including STBs that are built with concepts of openness and adherence to standards so as to achieve the same goals. Its all about building a competitive platform that has a chance of staying relevant for at least five years by being kept up to date with the latest features.