The challenge with making predictions is distinguishing between what you want to happen and what will happen. And so it is with the pay-TV user interface (UI). Like many people, I love TV, but often struggle to decide on what to watch, due to shows and movies being hidden within a labyrinth of menus or across multiple apps. So far, the industry has been quick to acknowledge this failing, but has been slow to act. The good news is that there are several good reasons to believe – or at least hope – that this will change in 2017.
True innovators will see past the industry's slavish obsession with Netflix. One of the most depressing things about TV tech trade shows is visiting stand after stand only to see almost exact copies of the OTT innovator's UI. The problem with Netflix is that it represents only one future for TV viewing – on-demand – and one that's heavily influenced by its past as an online DVD rental business. Using it feels like visiting an old-fashioned video rental store (remember them?) You go in, browse the boxes on the shelves, argue with your family about which one to choose, and often leave empty-handed. In 2017, smart service providers and vendors will come up with UIs that combine live, time-shifted, on-demand, and other types of viewing to offer superior sum-greater-than-its-parts experiences.
Apple will grudgingly admit that the future of TV is not apps. Okay, so it's highly unlikely the tech giant's CEO Tim Cook will actually say this in 2017, but the company has already made a tacit admission with the launch this week of its TV app (not to be confused with its Apple TV device). TV allows search and discovery of relevant and trending shows and movies across iTunes, HBO Now, Hulu, and various other online video services, saving users from having to dip in and out of each app. In other words, Apple has realized that most consumers do not want several TV apps; at best, they want just one, or more simply a single place to find something to watch. True, multiple apps will live on, but behind the scenes, with consumers caring less and less about accessing their UIs directly. It's also worth noting that Apple's TV app is not the first product to tackle so-called universal TV search and discovery – and judging from early reviews, far from the best.
Facebook will launch a TV UI with a uniquely powerful social spin. Clearly, Facebook's main focus is on building new kinds of mobile-centric video propositions to strengthen its hand in the battle against Google and Snapchat for digital advertising revenues. But I don't think it's fanciful to suggest the social network could also launch a premium video discovery app or feature similar to Apple's TV app and Google's Home. Certainly, Facebook could deliver a superior experience for consumers and generate more viewing for content providers, thanks to its large, highly engaged audience and the power of its social feed, both of which Apple and Google lack. Unlike Apple and Google, Facebook doesn't produce devices or OS software, but this disadvantage will become increasingly slight as app and casting technologies become more open. The downside for participating video service providers will be less control over the user experience, greater competition for eyeballs, and risk to ad revenues should the social network choose to sell ads around any TV discovery service it might launch.
The industry will realize the latent potential of the pay-TV set-top box (STB). Pay-TV STBs that can receive both traditional and OTT TV services will represent a significant opportunity to provide advanced TV experiences to a large body of users in 2017. By the end of next year, there will be 637 million connected STBs in use, compared to 325 million connected smart TVs and 161 million media streamers, such as Google Chromecast and Apple TV. Connected pay-TV STBs will also benefit from the commercial and technical links their pay-TV operator providers have with content providers. These relationships will ease challenges relating to integration, authentication, billing, and generally ensuring consumers can access all of the shows and movies they want to watch – which will continue to dog less trusted parties from outside the traditional TV industry like Apple.
Pay-TV operators will become like OTT firms in ways that really matter. It's fair to say that many attempts by pay-TV operators to bring together all of the different ways and services modern consumers want to view have fallen short of the mark. But the UIs of some of the industry's more advanced players will get better – and quickly. These operators have taken a leaf out of the Internet firms' books by adopting an agile approach to evolving their platforms, intertwining development and operations teams to continually roll out new features. Whereas upgrades could take months if not years to develop and roll out under legacy processes, this "DevOps" set of practices will enable a pay-TV operator to add and test new services and improvements to its UI on a daily basis. Cloud, virtualization, and analytics will be key technologies, but the biggest challenges will be cultural and organizational, as operators move from a baked-in broadcast mentality to a more fluid and flexible digital view of the world.
The results of the battle to define the next-generation of pay-TV UIs will have major implications for the future of TV. Historically, changes to the position of TV channels in operators' electronic programming guides (EGPs) have had marked impacts on their ratings, both positive and negative. Service providers that work with Internet firms, meanwhile, will become beholden to their mysterious inner-workings. Facebook, for example, frequently changes its algorithms to suit its commercial goals, often causing increases and declines in traffic and ad revenues for companies already reliant on the platform.
Whatever the fate of whichever party you work for, as consumers we can at least hope that finding something to watch on TV will become easier in 2017.
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