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Apps are the new Set-top Boxes

I was on a fun panel at Digital Media Wire’s Future of TV conference just before Thanksgiving. The panelists were a mix of old and new media. I thoroughly enjoyed the spirited dialogue between Boxee’s Avner Ronen and Peter Stern, Chief Strategy Officer of Time Warner Cable, who came off like the digital media version of Waldorf and Statler. In the end I found myself defending Time Warner. 

Comcast iPad app

I am struck by how quickly the cable (and by cable I mean satellite, telco TV, etc) guys seem to be moving these days. There are now great multi-platform experiences available from the companies you’d least expect. You hear comments from average consumers, maybe not NewTeeVee readers, who love, LOVE, the Xfinity TV app (shown, right). 

Today, we saw Verizon and Microsoft announce a futuristic XBox Live experience for FIOS TV customers. And whether or not gesture-based TV UIs are the future, I give Verizon credit for taking risk. 

And over the past year we’ve seen impressive, envelope-pushing moves by Time-Warner CableComcast and some of their peers. 

A year ago, we had major media customers at Brightcove who would not even think about Connected TV distribution. But because of these moves by their distribution partners, suddenly there’s a lot of creative thinking around distribution from those same programmers. TV Everywhere authentication on devices. Apps. And one of the most interesting concepts (an oldie but goodie) - “virtual” channels in which a programmer uses their expertise to build a packaged bundle of programming - with no traditional, linear carriage. We’ve seen a few isolated examples in the past, but programmers seem keen on the concept once again. 

I give the cable guys credit for breaking things open a bit over the past year. Increasingly, we are seeing the content business start to look like an encumbered marketplace. This was one of the founding ideas at Brightcove - that professional content would flow more freely. As this happens, the importance of the device or the glass that viewers watch their programming on matters less.

John Gruber wrote that Apps are the new Channels, but I believe they are also a replacement for the set-top box as we know it. At a recent conference someone said that maybe we are moving not to Smart TV, but to dumb TV, and the sophistication is in the apps. I like that concept. Success becomes all about the user experience and value of the offering to the viewer. The cable guys get this and are aggressively moving to kill the set-top box as we know it. In the end the set-top box becomes an app. Or a variety of apps. On the iPad, the XBox or your LG TV. 

This leveling of the playing field means interesting changes in the content ecosystem over the next 18 months for the incumbent players. Ironically, they are doing some things right on the technology side - which has historically lags. But there are challenges on the business side which are now holding back progress. I will touch on those in another post. Coming tomorrow - what the cable guys are doing wrong. 

Eric Elia
VP, TV Solutions