Why the cloud will keep set top alive

The death of the set-top box has been predicted so many times that it may seem a waste of a blog to point out why this is not going to happen anytime soon.

But, the arrival of the smart-TV era has added a new dimension to the argument, since web-connected TVs are being presented as alternatives to the traditional set top box by plugging users directly into sources of content. But while connected TVs will become more prevalent, many of them will still access premium content services via some kind of box. This will be the case even if traditional pay-TV providers lose the battle against emerging OTT providers, and even if premium content rights holders are ready to trust OTT services with their most valuable assets.

The reason is simply that users are going to want one place where they can get to their content, with the help of a powerful search and recommendation system. For the foreseeable future at least, such services will be delivered via hybrid platforms, such as YouView in the UK, along with a number based on the HbbTV standard elsewhere in Europe. These platforms all come with dedicated boxes that combine access to a traditional medium, often digital terrestrial or satellite, with access to web content, all integrated within a single programme guide.

At the same time, pay-TV operators are adding web connectivity to their services and becoming hybrid providers themselves, hoping to retain customers by giving them all the OTT content they might want, packaged nicely with increasingly powerful navigation tools. In the UK, BSkyB has just added live access to the BBC iPlayer and ITV Player catch up portals via its set top box. Rival Virgin Media already offers such access, so now both the UK’s dominant pay TV operators have the world’s most successful catch-up service inside their walled gardens, accessible via the same EPG as scheduled linear content.

As was recently noted by Nigel Walley, managing director of UK digital media consultancy Decipher, in a blog of his own, this represents the “natural journey of archived and catch-up content onto the best screen for watching TV programs — the telly. As set-top boxes have become connected, it has opened up the last, but most important screen to the power of on-demand.”

In effect, here pay-TV is hijacking OTT and making it part of its expanded service offering. Walley is no luddite and recognizes the inexorable logic of web-based cloud delivery of content. But, his point is that some in the industry, and certainly many analysts and commentators, have been wishing the future on us too quickly, and that, in the short-term, the walled garden may even make a comeback. He predicts that in the UK, the amount of iPlayer traffic delivered through Sky’s software alone, not even counting Virgin Media, will exceed that of all iOS devices.

Walley goes further and suggests that iPlayer itself may be overtaken by resurgent PVRs with ever bigger disk drives hording ever greater amounts of content relevant to the household concerned. He cites here Virgin Media’s experience with its TiVo hybrid platform, which has increased time-shifted viewing of recorded content more than catch-up TV.

While not agreeing with this extended Walley argument, it does point to the future for the set-top box, and indicate why, in some form, it will survive even when cloud-based delivery has become ubiquitous. The answer lies in two words — smart home. Future homes will receive a variety of digital services such as security and remote healthcare, and the old-fashioned telly will remain a focal point of access and consumption.

There will also be a need to integrate such services, if only so that users can access them remotely away from the home. Given that the service mix and degree of integration will be specific to each home, it is hard to see how the access point can conveniently or cost-effectively be hosted in the network, or in the cloud to use current parlance. The smart home will be run much more effectively by some form of dedicated gateway collaborating with the cloud, but in an equal partnership and not subordinate to it.