UI: The Final Frontier for IPTV
You have a back end. You have maxed out your QoS quotas and your IPTV service is streaming its way to thousands of set-top-boxes. You have a VOD server. You have cunningly negotiated to acquire a host of 3rd party applications and you have squeezed the most horsepower out of your set-top-box: megahertz per dollar. Now, after all of that hard work, all that remains is the elusive UI. The snazzy user experience, the eye candy that will surely let you seal the deal with your subscribers.
So how do you fly by all of the stars in the universe to make your solution known? How do you reach out and entertain your subscribers above and beyond the standard video content being delivered to millions of homes over the IP network? The answer is to reinvent the TV surfing experience and demand more out of the available technology. Do not get pigeon-holed into offering another static client side application claiming to boast a TV-friendly UI. Instead, settle for no less than a rich and compelling, truly open, client-resident user experience platform with absolutely no restrictions.
This can be accomplished in the IPTV market today, and here are three key features that will ensure your IPTV solution can remain the most competitive, visually stunning, yet cost effective solution among your rivals. The first key is performance. The software framework facing the customers at the STB end of the spectrum must be small, fast and portable. Key two: openness. Standards are racing to catch up with the world of IPTV. Ensure that you select a software stack that’s open so you can easily make changes and adopt the evolving requirements and solutions put forth by the best in the industry. The final key is to look for data-driven solutions as opposed to the old request-and-wait paradigms that some still believe to be valid for the IPTV space. Let's look at each of these in a bit more detail.
Performance. Response. Master these and you will quickly be on your way to maximizing end-user experience. Within the realm of performance and response there are a few notable areas that should define your requirements for the selection of a great client-side IPTV UI framework.
The software which resides on the STB must be small; very light in footprint. Software which is small facilitates great performance increases. For example, a small footprint allows for greater memory usage both on the hard disk and in RAM. Not only will this free more memory for native processes and 3rd party applications, it will also save space for the user to squeeze more recorded program time on your DVR-enabled boxes. For those STBs which always retrieve their software image on bootup, a smaller footprint for the native client-side framework will reduce bandwidth traffic during mass reboot scenarios and will guarantee faster boot and reboot times versus other, heavier solutions.
The software which resides on the STB must be fast; very responsive to user input. The standard IR remote control already takes away much of the control in this area. Obviously slower than a mouse click or a keyboard press the IR control limps along and often misses user input altogether. This places a great onus on the client side application to not only handle remote control events quickly, but to also inform the end user (provide visual feedback) when a remote key press has been successfully received. Choppy glitches, slow loading times and questionable transitions make the user bored and often break them out of the immersive experience. As always the inclusion of—at the very least—“Please Wait” or “Loading...” screens must be included for slow tasks to inform the user that the application is handling the users request (i.e. Tasks which take more than a second to perform).
Openness. The UI as an instantly changeable component is now a must. Look for this feature soon as SkinTonesTM will soon start to play just as important a role to the TV application as the ring tone to a mobile phone. Custom applications, which can be developed in-house or by a 3rd party, and which may be downloaded and seamlessly integrated into the offering are major features that protect against the evolving requirements of the end users.
Changing the look of the UI (re-skinning) is no longer changing the colour scheme of the UI. Skinning is not merely swapping images within the UI, and skinning is not resizing or moving around UI elements. Skinning is a complete change of style. Skinning is a complete change of interaction paradigm. Skinning is even a change of application availability/accessibility and may include a change of the TV format and UI resolution (NTSC, PAL, 720p etc.). The most important piece of information to take home about re-skinning is that it must not involve a reboot of the STB. This is now completely unacceptable as PC and cell-phone applications have mastered this art years ago.
Third party applications will play an important role in initial IPTV deployments. Expecting a client-side application framework to guess what all of the hot next-generation applications will be is inconsistent. Expecting a client-side application framework to provide a mechanism to integrate third-party applications into their offering is a must. Look for client-side solutions that provide the freedom, and quality APIs, to allow for SIs and major operators to easily develop and deploy client side applications to handle MMS, Caller-ID, file-sharing and other components that may not otherwise be explicitly offered.
Data-Driven. Internet based 'request and wait' mechanisms for data retrieval have given many users 'Refresh' and 'Reload' mentalities. The industry has the opportunity to avoid these frustrating paradigms in the world of IPTV... and the solution to the problem is data-driven everything. Old school client-side IPTV middleware offerings will often provide EPG or VoD data through HTML pages generated on a web server. This paradigm results in frustrating wait times at the client end and generates mass amounts of network traffic when users browse TV program listings or VoD libraries.
The time to act is now. Do not forget with what you are competing in this area. The benchmark for the 'Interactive UI' is quickly trending towards Microsoft and its ten million XBox 360's in the market. This is the behemoth of the high-end client-side device for the IPTV industry. With three, 3.2 GHz CPU cores this leviathan will dazzle users with performant high-definition UIs capable of vector-based animations, on-the-fly anti-aliasing and the potential of three-dimensional next-generation concepts.
Obviously, John Doe will not purchase an Xbox 360 or any other high-end $400 STB purely for IPTV. Nor will a major telco cough up these figures per user to promote rapid adoption. You, your clients and your suppliers may be targeting more common consumers who are more than willing to bring affordable STBs into their home to take advantage of the revolution that IPTV will bring to the wor