Boxed In

With a number of new parties entering the set top box (STB) space recently, threats from games consoles and internet based platforms are asking questions of the STB market.
Shane McCarthy, Group account director, Pace.
Shane McCarthy, Group account director, Pace.
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With a number of new parties entering the set top box (STB) space recently, threats from games consoles and internet based platforms are asking questions of the STB market. Digital Broadcast investigates.

Accessing video content is now possible via a vast number of methods. Networks born on the web – particularly YouTube – are increasingly available on different platforms including TV STBs and traditional broadcasters are continually expanding their accessibility online.

The technologies enabling these crossovers are adding improved functionality and better user experiences. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 platform has internet connectivity (by WiFi if you like), a hard drive, HD capability, a proprietary social community platform (Xbox Live) and a dedicated online content store (Xbox Live Marketplace).

While all this might sound like a PVR, VOD platform and more all rolled into one the company maintains that it is not looking to position the Xbox 360 as a home media hub.

“The Xbox is a gaming device. Microsoft has been very clear in positioning the Xbox as just that,” says Gabrielle Di Piazza, managing director, Microsoft media, entertainment and communications.

“We also provide entertainment through the Xbox but we are not confusing the two things. The Xbox is a gaming device first, but we also want to provide an entertainment offering as part of the experience.”

Di Piazza claims that the Xbox Live Marketplace portal offers the largest supply of downloadable HD content in the US and currently boasts 16-17 million users daily. The company is also continuing to add to the number of applications.

“We have announced that the Xbox can be used as a STB for our IPTV Mediaroom offering but I don’t think we should be talking about exchanging the STB for an Xbox,” concedes Di Piazza.

So although other devices are gaining STB functions, even the manufacturers of these new platforms admit that the STB is not about to be superseded with an all-in-one solution.

“Creating a single home entertainment hub is preferable from a consumer perspective, but has the potential to present problems for the service providers involved,” says Shane McCarthy, group account director, Pace.

“There is certainly some attrition now between the PC, games console and the STB in terms of which is in the best position to take home entertainment to the next level. But the real benefit of the STB is that it is designed to manage content whereas the PC and games console are not.”

As consumers continue to receive their principal TV service in ever diversifying methods, the ability of a separate device to cater for all these different signals remains limited. The Xbox’s ability to act as a STB is not just restricted to IPTV services, but to those IPTV services using the Microsoft Mediaroom platform.

“I think consoles and STBs will coexist; neither will be the dominate player. Game devices such as the Nintendo Wii, Xbox360, and Playstation 3 have all been made network capable to create networked gaming communities,” says Mike Tometzki, senior director, client device strategy, Irdeto.

“This also enables them to become media servers and therefore allows push content via fire-walled player portals. In some systems like the PS3, DVB tuners via USB connections are being added allowing for freeview only content.”

Tometzki expects to see both types of devices embrace increased storage with both pursuing 1Tb capacities. He also expects to see more STBs including Blu-ray drives as the available catalogue expands. However, he believes that connectivity will be the key differentiator for the STB moving forward.

“Wireless home media hubs are likely to be the STB of the future, the home gateway with more than 1Tb of storage, several DVB tuners, catering for multiple devices for local viewing around the home and place shifting, and a broadband pipe in excess of 10 Mbs – allowing push content and targeted content based on the viewing habitats,” predicts Tometzki.

 Pace’s McCarthy says that viewers are already beginning to demand such functionality making it harder for one currently available device to perform all of these roles.

“Operators provide services for an extremely large variation in consumer needs – one size certainly doesn’t fit all. The way people view content has dramatically changed in recent years. New services such as HD, VOD and live replays have been adopted in markets around the world. The STB is instrumental in facilitating the delivery of new content services and as consumers’ expectations continue to grow, the STB and its place at the centre of the TV experience will continue to play a key role in driving further innovation,” says McCarthy.

One of the most important features on STBs that could ensure their continued necessity is the in-built ability to comply with DRM protection.

“Delivering content to a range of devices – consoles or computers – makes content security extremely difficult. In view of this, the digital home environment is likely to remain dependent on a number of connected boxes with secure content managed by a dedicated STB,” assures McCarthy.

“The pay TV market has evolved rapidly over the past decade and this has been driven by STB development, which is continuously enabling improved entertainment and content delivery. Traditionally, innovation took place with the TV although now this has largely shifted to the STB,” claims McCarthy.

This switch in the leader of innovation has not just been from one device to another. There has also been a switch in the industry behind these services. Several companies with core business interests elsewhere have developed media products and specifically user interfaces (UI) that have surpassed what was previously on offer, raising expectations along the way.

“The Apple UI is without doubt the best and most recognisable in the marketplace,” says Alex Borland, business development director, Latens.

“Now the operators need to be able to keep up with that. That means releasing a better product into the market, with better graphics capability, suitable UIs that can compete with Apple plus all the additional functionality. At the moment, the operators are somewhat behind. They haven’t faced these challenges before and they have been hampered with legacy infrastructure.”

Despite this, Borland believes that the operators could have done more in order to lead development of the technology.

“They need to think more about home networking, DNLA support (the standard associated with the Digital Living Network Alliance) and distribution to other devices and continuing to secure exclusive rights to content. This means that the digital rights of this content must also be transferred between devices,” explains Borland.

This is less complicated than it may sound, according to Borland. AES encryption algorithms – often used to secure Wi-Fi networks – are compatible with a number of portable devices and games consoles and installing DRM software over the top of these is straightforward, says Borland.

For the Middle East specifically, Borland believes that a combination of attitude and broadening fibre networks, put the region in a strong position to be fully exploiting all the capabilities of a future STB or home gateway. There are difficulties however.

“The biggest challenge facing the Middle East pay TV market is the growing availability of high quality FTA channels, which makes consumers reluctant to spend unnecessarily.” says McCarthy.

“This makes the Middle East an important growth region for STB manufacturers, as providing innovative services beyond those of the FTA platforms is likely to be the key factor in driving consumer adoption of pay TV services.” 

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