Google Leaves RDK Trailing with Android TV Operator Tier

Android TV is finally being adopted on a large scale by pay TV operators three years after its launch and seven years on from the original unveiling of its predecessor Google TV. One casualty could be the RDK (Reference Design Kit) platform introduced by Comcast around 2012 with a similar goal to accelerate deployment of next-generation video combining broadcast and broadband services through pre-integrated, open-source software to drive customer-premises equipment (CPE) including set top boxes (STBs).

Initially confined to cable TV, RDK has since been opened out to all forms of video delivery. However, it is still very much cable-centric with Comcast, Time Warner and Liberty Global now sharing the venture through RDK Management. There are still just 13 deployments, although these are large operators including Comcast, Cox, Liberty Global, Rogers and Vodafone. Another 12 or so operators are evaluating the platform, according to RDK Management.

Already it is clear many more operators than that have deployed Android TV even if exact numbers are not available. Initially most Android TV deployments have been at smaller tier 2 operators for which the benefits of fast time to market and access to both the vast app ecosystem of Play store and advanced technologies such as voice driven personal assistants outweigh some loss of control. But now the platform is gaining traction as an alternative to RDK even with large operators, especially outside Europe where there is greater suspicion over Google’s motives, and especially outside the cable sector where RDK’s writ is strongest.

Both DISH and DirecTV, the two major satellite providers in the US, announced Android TV boxes in 2017. In France, Bouygues Telecom announced a new 4K Android TV box for release in 2018 to supplement its earlier HD one introduced in 2015. Then in Japan NTT DoCoMo has brought out an Android TV box for its impending IPTV service.

This is quite a turnaround after the initial disappointment of Google TV which was widely slated after its 2010 launch for being too complex and geared too much towards a personal computer environment. By 2013 there were still hardly any products and software developers had virtually given up on the operating system.

Google then came in with its second attempt to conquer the living room with a very different product, Chromecast, which proved much more successful and sold 17 million units in its first two years. However, running with a simplified version of the Chrome OS, it relies on an external Android device for processing and content, so it is merely a conduit from connected devices such as smart phones, tablets and games consoles to the big screen.

Meanwhile in June 2014 Android TV came along as a full replacement for the by then obsolete Google TV OS. This time it was based on the Android mobile OS, making it much easier for developers to port apps from the mobile version of the operating system to Android TV.

But even then Android TV still failed to gain much traction at first, with one negative factor being poor stability in the platform and inadequate documentation. Another drawback was lack of support for operators wanting to deploy services on Android TV and yet tailor them to their own lineups, according to Kai-Christian Borchers, Managing Director of German based 3 Screen Solutions (3SS), whose 3 Ready platforms is based on the latest versions of Android TV. “In the beginning Android TV was not at all attractive to operators because there was no custom launcher, no operator tier,” said Borchers. “Google still wanted to really hijack the STB and no operator was willing to engage. So, Google learned the hard way that their approach was not appropriate or acceptable to operators and had to change.”

But here’s the rub. The platform is now stable, while Google has modified its position and made significant overtures towards operators by allowing some degree of customization with the custom launcher. “The operator tier is a different flavor of Android TV, allowing even more ways of branding the UI as an operator and having more control over it with the custom launcher provided by Google.”

Google has made compromises to increase appeal of Android TV for operators.

Google has made compromises to increase appeal of Android TV for operators.

Yet, as Borchers acknowledged, operators cannot yet be sure what Google’s ultimate motives are and whether it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing with the operator tier a trojan horse to gain access to their subscriber bases. The fear is Google will then cut lose and promote its own content and services in preference to the operator’s. “Nobody really knows yet what it means to get into bed with Google, what its agenda really is,” said Borchers. “They are being nice right now and operators are embracing them because of the added services and cost savings.”

Smaller tier 2 operators are enticed the most by Android TV because they lack the resources to develop their own advanced hybrid platforms or alternative options if they are to compete. “The smaller you are as an operator the more attractive Android TV becomes, because you can ride on a technology that is very powerful without paying big license bucks and speeding up time to market,” said Borchers. “The bigger and more self-confident you are, the less likely you are to engage with Android, at least in Europe.”

Indeed, Borchers noted how Swisscom as a tier 1 operator declined to embrace Google too tightly and instead went with the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) as the foundation for middleware in its IPTV service. This is free to download but requires effort in customization and keeps Google more at arm’s length. “As an operator Swisscom wanted to be in full charge of the channel lineup they offer and so went with AOSP,” said Borchers.

However, Borchers insisted that interest in AOSP was now spreading to the top tier of operators, especially outside Europe. “We are receiving more and more RFQs (Request For Quotations) where operators want to go to Android TV,” said Borchers. “I think in other countries operators are starting to realize that an individual GUI (Graphical User Interface) is not so relevant after all in terms of being outstandingly innovative. They realize that if they come up with all sorts of fancy intellectual ideas for GUIs then they go back to the original simpler one because customers don’t understand the advanced one, as happened at Kabel Deutschland.” Such service providers end up ditching their sophisticated UIs and resembling Netflix because that is what users want. Differentiation then comes through content and service options rather than the GUI and Android TV provides the ideal foundation for that. It does of course provide access to Google’s voice-driven UI technology, but that would not really be a differentiator because that would also be available to all other operators deploying Android TV.

At NAB 2018 Android TV was in evidence in demonstrations and launches. Amino gave a masterclass and demonstrated its deployment of Android TVF with Finland pay TV operator DNA. Amino’s Chief Technology Officer Mark Evensen chimed with 3SS by arguing that for operators battling churn as consumers look for more advanced features, Android TV was a compelling option for smaller service providers in particular by reducing implementation costs and complexities.

Another STB vendor, SDMC Tech, exhibited its latest 2K and 4K Android TV boxes designed to help operators add OTT services, again with the promise of low costs and short time to market. This featured SDMC’s OTT TV Platform Mediate including audience and big data management with support for the Android TV Operator Tier UI.

The upshot then is that for many smaller operators and even some larger ones if not the very biggest, the allure of Android TV with its operator tier and custom launcher is overcoming resistance against the advance of Google into their territory. The risk is that Google ends up well placed to move in and sell not just content but also connected services in the smart home domain for example. But the risk of not exploiting the cost savings, fast time to market and access to third party apps as well as advanced voice-driven technology presented by Android TV is increasingly deemed to be greater. Alternatives, notably RDK, require too much heavy lifting for smaller operators. 

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