Intel: a new breed of ‘virtual cable operator’?

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Intel is developing an over-the-top video service for US consumers, apparently positioned as a ‘virtual cable operator’ which would sell US TV channels nationwide in the manner of a traditional pay-TV ‘bundle’.

The vehicle for the service would, according to the WSJ, be an Intel Internet-capable set-top box.

The news is intriguing for several reasons: it was not that long ago that Intel was reported to be abandoning efforts to sell its processors to manufacturers of connected TVs, a strategy it launched in 2007.

Intel did say at the time that it would maintain a presence in the set-top box market, where it has met with a measure of success through deals with Comcast in the US and Liberty Global in Europe. Those agreements have been tempered, however, by the recent loss of its high-profile deal with Google TV, which has now chosen to go with the ARM-based Marvell Armada 1500 chipset instead.

Intel’s move may, in fact, be a reaction to this.

Of greater significance, perhaps, is the notion of a ‘virtual cable operator’, which runs against the apparent trend towards distributors being disintermediated by the Internet.

In fact, farncombe was arguing two years ago that a new type of intermediary online player was required to make the OTT video sector more efficient and economic.

Farncombe postulated at the time that there were two possible models for such intermediaries:

  1. In order to differentiate themselves from their competitors, they would invest in exclusive premium content on their own account or with a partner; or
  2. They would regard their strength as lying within their role as “commodity” providers of access to multiple content providers, and would not seek to invest in the video platforms themselves or in “direct” content agreements.

Although it’s not yet clear whether Intel intends to invest in premium content, it appears to be following the first model rather than the second.

New group formed to promote uptake of MPEG-DASH standard

A new lobby group has been created to drive more widespread adoption of the new MPEG-DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) standard, already adopted by a number of European hybrid platforms, including the UK’s Freeview HD and the French next-generation DTT norm, TNT 2.0. It is also expected to be included in the UK hybrid DTT standard, YouView.

The DASH Promoters Group (DASH-PG) has been created following the ratification of the MPEG-DASH standard in November 2011. The idea behind the standard is to define a universal delivery format for Internet, based on the ‘best elements’ of proprietary streaming technologies such as Adobe Dynamic Streaming for Flash, Apple HTTP Adaptive Streaming and Microsoft Smooth Streaming.

Adaptive streaming is a client-controlled technology which works by adapting, in real-time, to the network bandwidth available for a video-stream without the need for ‘re-buffering’. Thus, if the available bandwidth suddenly reduces, the client drops to a lower resolution by calling on a lower bit-rate stream. This may degrade the picture, but side-steps the problem that the higher bit-rate stream may stutter or freeze while waiting for extra bits to be received. When bandwidth returns to normal, the client automatically switches back to the higher bit-rate stream.

Adaptive bit-rate is regarded as a key technology required to deliver a good quality of experience to consumers accessing OTT video, where the IP network is unmanaged.

The membership of the DASH Promoters Group represents a significant cross section of major players across the multimedia and video delivery value chain. Microsoft, Netflix and Qualcomm are the founding members. Other companies currently include: Adobe, AEG Digital Media, Akamai, BuyDRM, Digital Rapids, Digital TV Labs, Dolby, EBU-UER, Elemental, Envivio, Ericsson, Harmonic, Intertrust, NDS, Packet Ship, Path1, RGB Networks, Samsung, Thomson, University of Klagenfurt and ZiXi.

In addition to promoting broad adoption of DASH, the Promoters Group will focus on aligning ongoing DASH standards development, promoting the use of common profiles across industry organizations, and facilitating interoperability tests and plug-fests to demonstrate the usability and completeness of the DASH standard.

To learn more about the DASH Promoters Group, click here.


Adobe abandons Flash on TVs as well as mobiles

The Gigaom website says that yesterday’s ZDNET exclusive about Adobe abandoning Flash in favour of HTML-5 wasn’t confined to the mobile space.

In a statement released to Gigaom, an Adobe spokeperson reportedly confirmed it would no longer focus on porting the Flash plugin into web browsers on CE devices, either. The Adobe statement said:

“Adobe will continue to support existing licensees who are planning on supporting Flash Player for web browsing on digital home devices and are using the Flash Player Porting Kit to do so. However we believe the right approach to deliver content on televisions is through applications, not a web browsing experience, and we will continue to encourage the device and content publishing community down that path.”

The late Steve Job’s long-standing opposition to the standard was no doubt influential in the move, since as a result, Flash was not supported on iPhones, iPods or iPads. In a famous open letter in April 2010, Jobs outlined his reasons for the Apple ban,arguing that “the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.”

Jobs went on to predict that “new open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too).”

UPDATE: Farncombe has published an analysis of how Adobe’s decision will impact service providers and connected TV platforms here.

Intel exits connected TV to focus on STBs, smartphones and laptops

According to Bloomberg, Intel is abandoning plans to supply its processors to manufacturers of connected TVs, although it plans to maintain its presence in the TV set-top box market.

Bloomberg quoted an Intel spokesperson who described it as “a business decision where we’re taking those resources and applying them to corporate priorities.” Engineers in its Digital Home Group will now re-focus on tablets, smartphones and a new type of laptop Intel has dubbed the ‘Ultrabook’.

Intel’s ambitions for the connected TV market first emerged in 2007 in the shape of its ‘Canmore’ chip, later known as the CE 3100 media processor. The first iteration was demonstrated at an Intel Developers Forum in summer 2008, before becoming the enabling platform for the Yahoo Widget connected TV demos at CES 2009.

Its successor, the CE 4100, part of Intel’s low-powered Atom series, has scored some notable successes in the set-top box market – with Comcast in the US and Liberty Global in Europe, as well as with Google’s Google TV. However, the Atom series has failed to make any significant impact on manufacturers of connected TV sets.

IBC 2011 – The wall-size interactive display surfaces at NDS

Take a screen as big as a wall linked to a connected TV, open half a dozen of the OTT apps or widgets at once, and enlarge and scatter them around a centrally-displayed video image. In a nutshell, that’s the NDS ‘Surfaces’ concept: an imagined scenario of how future display technologies could be deployed that the technology company believes could be only five years away.

However, the dynamic visual experience this set-up makes available is considerably richer than that thumbnail sketch would suggest. Controlled through a tablet, ambient lighting can be varied, the video display expanded and shrunk, and different sets of widgets called up depending on who’s in the room. In one of the scenarios shown, a family breakfasting could have weather and travel information showing either side of a TV news bulletin ‘screen’, below which a display of contextual headlines (triggered by tags embedded in the news video stream) would continually update.

Other scenarios showed the entire wall being used for an expanded super HD movie viewing (with the lights dimmed), and a talent show invoking social media applications such as Twitter or Facebook around the screen, together with a voting app. One of the key notions involved is the triggering of changes in the display through meta-data in the broadcast stream.

Simon Parnall, UK Vice President Technology at NDS, said one of the motives behind the demonstration was a recognition that more attention needed to be paid to the consumer’s viewing experience. Given the continually expanding screen sizes available, the scenario being presented was not that far-fetched, he suggested.

The wall-sized video ‘surface’ apart, all the technologies used were available today, with the entire demonstration being run through a Google Chrome web browser using the new HTML-5 standard.