NAB preview: The taming of over-the-top

Amazon’s FireTV set-top box, unveiled to much fanfare this week, could be a cord-cutter’s delight. With a 1.7Ghz processor, dedicated GPU and 2GB of RAM (see full specs here) FireTV promises to be faster and more responsive than competing set-top streamers and easier to navigate using its voice-activated remote control. Though still missing some important content, particularly in the live sports category (presumably to be filled in later), the powerful FireTV offers impressive gaming support along with Amazon’s kid-friendly Free Time Unlimited service, a $2.99 a month all-you-can-eat bundle of content from Nickelodeon, Sesame Street, PBS Kids and other G-rated fare.

Although Amazon’s marketing pitch for FireTV positions it against Apple TV, Roku and Google’s Chromecast, the device is clearly aimed at making watching over-the-top video as much like the lean-back, channel-surfing experience of watching traditional linear TV as possible.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Amazon’s FireTV unveiling comes on the eve of the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention in Las Vegas, where one of the main focuses will be on making traditional TV platforms look and feel more like watching over-the-top video.

Making its debut at this year’s show will be Redmond, WA-based startup WebTuner, headed by Gemstar founder and former Hughes Electronics/DirecTV director Bernee Strom, and former FourthWall Media software architect Ed Zaslavsky. Like

Web Tuner adapter
Web Tuner adapter

Amazon, WebTuner is rolling out a small but powerful set-top device, with a dual core ARM-based processor, that can stream OTT video. Unlike Amazon, however, WebTuner isn’t looking to push traditional pay-TV providers off the set-top. It’s go-to-market strategy, in fact, is to make its adapter available to MVPDs as a next-generation device to support an integrated, IP-based service that combines linear channels and OTT services into a single UI.

The platform includes fully cross-indexed metadata that allows simultaneous content searching across all channels regardless of their source and enables IMDb-like look-up of stars, directors and other credit-list names without leaving the program being watched.

WebTuner has also built in audience measurement tools and an e-commerce platform to support transaction-enabled advertising. All of the platform’s components can be individually licensed and implemented, allowing service providers to evolve their offering over time.

“We figured out how to fit into the existing ecosystem; we’re not looking to blow it up,” Strom said. “We come from the industry and we understand how it needs to work.”

New York-based Piksel will also be touting evolution over revolution at NAB. The systems integrated for multiscreen service providers is rolling out its Palette services framework at NAB designed to help operators evolve their existing infrastructure to support new OTT services.

“What’s most important to content owners and aggregators today is evolving and future-proofing their legacy systems so that they can affordably and reliably keep pace with new innovations, devices, and customer requirements,” Piksel’s chief commercial officer Kevin Joyce said in a statement. “No one wants to ‘rip and replace’ at this stage of the game — what’s needed is to build on what you already have with sensible levels of new investment.”

Even Comcast, which developed its integrated X1 platform in-house, has said it would license the technology to other operators.

As I’ve written here before, the distinction between linear and OTT “channels” is increasingly less meaningful to consumers, just as consumers today barely distinguish between broadcast and pay-TV channels they receive by the same wire or dish. The industry still thinks about them as separate categories largely because of legacy business models and licensing arrangements.

Maintaining them as separate categories, however, is ultimately counter-productive for the industry because it forces consumers to make choices they shouldn’t have to make and inevitably leaves someone in the industry on the wrong end of that choice.

Whether the impetus for breaking down those categories comes from over-the-top of traditional sources is obviously a critical issue for those invested on either side of the divide. But the sooner it happens the better for all concerned.