​What’s The Future For Middleware?

There are many more curators of solutions in the pay-TV market now that there is a move to an all IP infrastructure away from traditional broadcast. Aside from voice, the underlying technologies in pay-TV remain the same as they have for some years i.e. Linux, JavaScript, HTML5, SQL databases and Virtual Machines. What are the implications for middleware – the functional link or glue between the broadcaster service provider and the set top box in the home. Anthony Smith-Chaigneau, senior product marketing, Nagra says the server side has grown-ever stronger and is the nucleus of all pay-TV solutions today.

Smith-Chaigneau of Nagra: As we move to a ‘wired’ TV landscape, we have returned to the client server era albeit that the ‘thin-client’ is no longer the driver as it once was in the early days of IPTV, especially if you consider the silicon and memory requirements that are needed on a modern set-top box for an efficient quality of experience.

BroadcastBridge: Will fragmentation become better or worse?

Smith-Chaigneau: Fragmentation has not completely gone away since it was the ‘hot topic’ in 2012, it has simply morphed. It is no longer a pure technology issue, as we now have content fragmentation and business rules fragmentation (e.g. streaming transport rights issues) amongst other complex TV production and licensing aspects that affect the pay-TV landscape.

So as we settle on a set of baseline technologies (Linux, JavaScript, HTML5 and Java Virtual Machines) in the pay-TV ecosystem, it is possible to claim that fragmentation is growing but not necessarily in the underlying plumbing of the pay-TV eco-systems on offer.

Does middleware still have a key role to play in new digital video platforms?

Middleware has always had a role, however the discussion has moved to services, solutions and mobile, with TV Everywhere as the requirement. Client-server and all-IP based discussions taking top-of-mind. Nonetheless, a managed pay-TV service has always been required by many operators and remains important to many large pay-TV players. Let us not forget the hybrid scenario in a transitioning market that must also be carefully considered, as middleware plays a very important part therein. Also, we must, as an industry, remember that the market transition is not running at the same speed across the globe. The move from analogue to HD is still happening in some quarters of the TV industry.

How is it evolving to help meet new consumer (and service provider) requirements?

The consumer has never been so well off for TV solutions and they have no need to concern themselves with any of the technologies. However, ‘the fit-for-purpose’ aspect is where the consumer is being let-down. Smart TVs are witness to a growing problem of devices that quickly stop functioning as their ‘middleware’ can no longer support required functionality of the software.

There are engineering consequences in the choice of technology in our app driven world of TV. Native cloud reliant Apps and locally embedded software in the Linux, JavaScript, HTML5 world can seem large, inefficient, and sometimes bloated applications on frameworks in the STB middleware, which needs high performing STBs for a good quality of service. It means STBs and Smart TVs run out of physical resources faster than we imagined. Can the STB industry have multiple’ native Apps’ on standard STBs? Can the middleware engineers still squeeze the software into cost-effective STBs so that there is enough ‘operational headroom’ for fast changing Apps that keep growing with every update? Herein lies the age-old problem of runaway software requirements versus STB configuration parameters (not to mention engineering resources required to achieve such efficiencies) that need to be carefully managed in devices that are supposed to last the consumer much longer that 12-18 months.

Anthony Smith-Chaigneau is senior product marketing, Nagra.

Anthony Smith-Chaigneau is senior product marketing, Nagra.

Will Android become the de facto pay-TV middleware of the future?

We are no strangers to Android and its underlying technology, it has been with us in one form or another for the last eight years. In fact, it remarkably resembles the DVB-MHP middleware that was touted as the solution to proprietary and fragmented middleware some ten years ago. IP was not as strong back then; however, the TV gurus of the time had already seen that we would need a homogenous middleware for TV. Android has ironically resurrected the middleware discussions in the last two years, and now that it has given up a particularly stubborn stance on certain elements (that also saw it stumble early-on in the marketplace), we can see that it is becoming the de-facto choice amongst many pay-TV operators.

What commercial factors are influencing development in this field?

Notwithstanding the recent issues that befell it at the hands of the EU Competition Council that made Google subsequently threaten its position as a ‘free’ product, (this is what killed the earlier attempts at a Java-based middleware from the DVB) it is flourishing. The cost of devices, at this juncture in the market, make it attractive, also allowing for a BYOD scenario, which is another attractive proposition for a pay-TV operator who wishes to off-load the Capex aspect of STBs. There are many developers for apps, albeit TV related apps are also settling to a potentially finite number.

While the future of licensing, middleware support and the longevity of the solution is placed in the hands of a single company, it is an attractive commercial model that is influencing how the operators want to see their business develop.

Can we ever have a single supplier of a technology in the ‘media and information’ space? The regulators certainly might beg to differ, however, this is an additional layer to consider in the ever-changing world of TV middleware.

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