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Alcatel-Lucent and Cisco push multiscreen momentum

The entry by dominant multinational companies normally heralds the coming of age for a field, and this appears to be happening now for multiscreen TV after major announcements by both Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent. But a closer look reveals that both companies were already in the multiscreen field and were actually announcing partnerships to flesh out their portfolio, and make a large splash to show they really had arrived this time. Perhaps it is when the big boys make a loud noise that we can say a field is ready for lift off.

Cisco had already entered the multiplatform arena with its Videoscape system in January 2011, comprising hardware and software with four components. There was a back-office management system; a thin client for IP-enabled devices, gateways and set-tops; a device, content and rights-aware network software layer; and a reference distribution-architecture, which operators can implement using Cisco networking hardware.

But Cisco did not trumpet this too loudly because the platform lacked some features operators would expect to have to deploy a full blown multiscreen package, notably the tools for creating flexible and intuitive user interfaces and presentation graphics. A partnership with UK-based developer of multiplatform content products Red Bee Media was brewing, culminating in the follow up announcement last week of the RedPlayer service, combining Red Bee Media’s creative, digital content and media management services with key elements of the Cisco Videoscape platform for blending TV with Web content, personal media and social networking.

RedPlayer will include three Cisco Videoscape Media Suite modules, the Content Management System; Entitlement, which provides tools for configuring and enforcing content access rules; and Publisher, to produce comprehensive, multilevel content feeds and playlists. Also in the package are the Videoscape Soft Client, along with video streaming and download players for the PC and Mac.

Like Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent already had a multiscreen package with its Multiscreen Video Solution, and also like Cisco decided that help was needed to turn this into a compelling platform, in this case for IPTV and cable TV operators. The resulting combined platform has three components. Firstly there is a management tool, thePlatform’s mpx, which can be provided in both ‘cloud-based’ and self-hosted versions, enabling media and metadata management, rights enforcement and subscriber administration. Second, there is an operator-deployable content delivery network (CDN), based on Alcatel-Lucent’s Velocix. Thirdly there are customisable multiscreen applications for tablets, PCs and mobiles, to which both partners contributed. Alcatel-Lucent therefore needed the partnership for some of the higher-level content and customer, management facilities, rather like Cisco.

But Alcatel-Lucent’s partnership looks more comprehensive, since thePlatform is a subsidiary of Comcast, the largest U.S. cable operator with about 23 million customers. On the one hand this partnership may deter some of Comcast’s U.S. rivals from deploying the Alcatel-Lucent/thePlatform multiscreen solution. At the same time though, Comcast has become arguably the leading mover and shaker of the cable TV industry. Comcast has forged ahead of its rivals and vendors by developing CMAP (Converged Multimedia Access Platform) to enable coexistence between EdgeQAM transport and the CMTS (Cable Modem Termination System) based DOCSIS systems increasingly used to deliver unicast video services as well as broadband Internet within the HFC (Hybrid Fiber Coax) access layer.

CMAP will also provide a standard platform for connecting multigigabit IP/Ethernet backbone networks with any access infrastructure, including wireless, fiber and DSL, as well as HFC. Having been broadly embraced as a standard in Europe as well as the U.S., CMAP is therefore an important component for many cable operators’ multiscreen strategies. Even Comcast’s rivals have admitted that CMAP could play a vital role in seeing off competition from IPTV rivals operating in the same, more densely populated areas.

But there is another view that can be taken on the specific developments by Alcatel-Lucent and Cisco, which is that they are not going further than rival platforms already in place. Many significant vendors in the pay TV arena, such as Motorola, Ericsson, NDS and Irdeto, already offer some form of multiscreen platform. Alcatel-Lucent and Cisco argue that these platforms all lack one or more of the vital ingredients for multiplatform deployment, which include enabling technology for a cloud-based shared infrastructure to provide scalability and economies of scale; client-side software for video playback, support for innovative and intuitive user interfaces, CDN delivery, rights enforcement, and content management.

Yet even if this is true, there are a few players dedicated to the field, such as Brightcove, that really do boast a comprehensive multiscreen development platform with proven deployments covering all the main bases. Yet with so many operators still deliberating over their multiscreen strategies, there is all to play for, which is why so much noise is being made and perhaps not enough light shed.