TV meets the Web

An open IPTV platform will offer personalization.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

Traditionally, television platforms have been differentiated by their mechanism of transmission — satellite, terrestrial, cable and DSL. Each operator has arguably relied on the reach determined by its network coverage first and its content offering second. You can't offer the best content in the world to people unless they can actually receive it.

If you put operators side-by-side, most offer the same type of thing, but by different means. Broadcast television has led up until now, so this first round of service extensions are a step towards broadening the range of content from other operators, and staying ahead of the technological game.

Figure 1. IPTV uses RTP/RTSP protocols to manage real-time delivery. Live television uses multicasting for efficient network utilization. Set-top boxes use IGMP to request the multicast.Click image to enlarge

The experience of using a TV service is intimately tied to the brand it's offered under, so it's no surprise that broadcasters and investment bankers scramble to design nice looking, user-friendly screens. The driving vision is what turns the whole thing sour.

Each operating menu (EPG) is controlled by a brand, and nothing gets near it that is not totally under the control of that brand's owner. Everything on a pay-TV platform is branded and controlled. If you want to create, innovate, market or experiment, you need permission from the platform operator. If you want to create new services and use TV as a medium, you are accountable to the operator. Oh, and you pay through the nose for it too. These TV platforms are closed, private and proprietary, and there are little indications of a change to more open access.

Now, compare that with the Internet, which is nearing a head-on collision with the world of pay television. In a little over 10 years, the Internet has become the most powerful force of social change on this planet. It has the power to topple governments, create billionaires overnight and offer a virtually free platform for anyone to create and innovate around.

The Internet is the great equalizer. Small businesses can compete with the largest global companies. Geography and distance have become irrelevant. And the human race can now collaborate in ways no one could have possibly imagined. The Internet was able to do all this because it was built on a principle of openness and philanthropy.

So the argument about IPTV desperately needing a differentiating factor is a valid one, but is rapidly becoming a fruitless search of a way to be a better cable TV. IPTV is understandably deserving of skepticism. It basically provides the same service, buts comes with additional baggage. Unfortunately, IPTV companies were decades ahead of their time when they launched.

IPTV needs to be an open platform that anyone can innovate around. That's a small statement in words, but it has enormous implications. There has never been an open TV network. Bringing the underlying power of the Internet to television means changing the entire world, instead of wondering whether it will be a good cable substitute.

The opportunities created by liberating this industry from the chains of the past are incredibly exciting. It will eliminate walled gardens, schedules and limitations. It will make current TV platforms look like dinosaurs in the 21st century.

Opening up a television platform is a profound step that can't be considered lightly. Other than the technological steps, there are commercial barriers that make it a difficult process. It is television based on a new idea rather than a new infrastructure. IPTV provides true personalization and two-way interactivity. Viewing comes through interacting rather than passively sifting through a funnel of unordered material. The nature of on-demand content empowers viewers and enables true freedom of choice. The good news is that after the initial learning curve, it's extraordinarily compelling and easy to sell.

The technology behind the platform

IPTV as a technological platform owes much to its formative precedent of streaming video over the Web. Unless you use proprietary products like Microsoft Windows Media or On2, typical standards revolve around:

  • MPEG-4 (all 22 ratified parts)
  • Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL)
  • Real-time streaming protocols like RTP and RTSP
  • Session Announcement and Description Protocols (SAP/SDP),
  • Transactional messaging through XML-based Web services, such as SOAP, Web Services Description Language (WSDL), Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI)
  • Distribution systems, such as multicasting.

Today's IP set-top boxes are more compliant with the latest W3C standards (XHTML 2, CSS 3.0) than Web browsers, such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari. Asynchronous communications, such as Web 2.0's Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX), has been a staple of the iTV environment for years.

Each piece of customer premises equipment has a different integration path because of differing hardware. However, the most crucial point that underpins all this effort toward interoperation and compatibility is that the IPTV community has learned from the Web. Furthermore, it has opted to work within an open framework that tries to provide standardized abstraction when it comes to integrating proprietary systems.

Using open technology standards is commercially beneficial as it allows innovators to easily cross-train an already enormous pool of developer talent available on the market today. Graphic designers need a rethink course to learn about TV display, and developers need to learn TV-specific extensions of middleware and differences between PC and set-top box capabilities.

The barriers to building IPTV services are much lower than they are for todays's TV platforms. Almost anyone can set up a demonstration service within a few hours for a negligible cost. Adapting existing Web applications is incredibly easy as they use the same technologies. Traditional platforms take months of training and testing to build something the brand owners will accept, and they cost a small fortune to even set up.

To the layman, an IPTV service is technically just a Web site, which is a group screens designed in HTML/JavaScript stored on a Web server that a Web browser in a set-top box can request and display. Where it differs is in centralized resource management, payment processing and the richness of multimedia that can be displayed. Real-time DVD-quality video from within a Web application is a developer's dream — one that we are edging closer to with companies like Google and YouTube.

VOD is simply digital video files streamed over a QoS-enabled IP network using RTP/RTSP. Live video is just another of those streams, with its source set to multicast IP address and controlled with protocols, including Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP). IGMP is used by IP systems to report their IP multicast memberships to neighboring multicast routers. (See Figure 1 on page 10.)

Conclusion

The IPTV brands of the future need to concentrate on making access as widely available as possible and making the content easy to find and consume. It's an irony that TV as a supposedly mass-market medium doesn't allow that market to contribute and evolve it. Our new worldwide TV platforms have the capability to reverse the conventional broadcasting paradigm. It's not theirs anymore; it belongs to all of us.

Alex Cameron is managing director of Digital TX, a company that provides IPTV consulting.