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June 17, 2024 3:10 PM

Breathing new life into old set-tops is a win-win-win

Headlines about the cost-of-living crisis are now a regular part of our daily existence. Consumers everywhere are tightening their belts and putting their entertainment spend under close scrutiny.

At the same time, our global TV entertainment marketplace seems to move and shift on a daily basis, with growing fragmentation, an unending cavalcade of new streaming services, as well as mergers and acquisitions among the more established players. These tectonic plates collide to create a very uncertain and unpredictable environment.

Telcos and pay-TV operators are doing everything they can to cut operational costs, pulling out all the stops in the effort to make running a TV entertainment business financially attractive again. In today’s climate, service providers weigh up their investment decisions more carefully than ever.

But their desire to economise is happening in parallel to the ongoing, overarching need to keep improving their services, particularly the user experiences (UX) offered to customers. These two powerful yet conflicting commercial vectors have together led to a quiet shift in service providers’ operations strategies.

Taking a long hard look at CPE

It is well-documented that CPE (consumer premise equipment) is the most costly item on the shopping list of things it takes to deliver a TV entertainment service. Installing shiny new set-top boxes in subscribers’ homes, particularly if ‘truck rolls’ are involved, is a hugely expensive enterprise.

In order to compete, operators need to deliver a loyalty-enhancing user experience. They must provide their customers with super-aggregated services that offer intuitive navigation, and a responsive UI with easy discoverability. Today’s boxes need to aggregate, distribute and provide frictionless access to ample content and a full array of applications, including a plethora of attractive third-party services, all comprising operators’ entertainment hubs.

These objectives are certainly all achievable with today’s powerful set-top boxes and their modern operating systems. Our industry’s manufacturers continue to make these historically significant and familiar items of household electronics smaller, more attractive and yet more capable.

Operators worldwide, though, have huge populations of legacy set-top boxes deployed in customers’ homes, and they’re acutely aware that the cost of swapping out old units for new ones is astronomical, certainly unsustainable.

Delivering great UX on legacy STBs is now a reality.

More and more operators today are eager to see what can be done to enhance the user experience on those boxes already in the field. They're keen to try to breathe new life into their legacy hardware in order to cut costs. But equally importantly, they're motivated to reward long-term subscribers. Service providers recognise the value in providing something better to their core customer base – good, reliable payers, month after month – but among whom are some who aren’t particularly eager to learn how to operate a new box or embrace an entirely new and unfamiliar navigation experience.

Operators now have a real opportunity to provide a sophisticated user interface via incumbent boxes, making the user experience on those dusty STBs perform better – or seem to – despite the hardware’s limitations.

With the right engineering and cross-platform approach, it’s like injecting Vitamin B12 (or applying a defibrillator?) to an old set-top. The UX can be made to feel better, faster, more energetic, but the underlying hardware is unchanged.

Countless deployed boxes and the age-old question about the future of the set-top box

Calculating the number of legacy set-top boxes worldwide would be a daunting task, maybe impossible considering that aggregated digital TV began in earnest in the 1990s – much earlier If you count analogue cable and satellite.

In recent years, our industry has been regularly asking itself about the future of the set-top, this smart gateway to enjoyment in the living room. The enduring appeal of the installed multifunction entertainment hub – and often useful direct line of communication from pay-TV operator to consumer – has meant that the story of the STB is an enduring one.

Ed Barton, Research Director at Caretta Research says: "STBs have long played a crucial role in aggregating streaming video with TV and service providers are keen to replicate this in their mobile and connected TV apps. However, given in-app aggregation is now technically possible alongside the ongoing proliferation of OTT-enabled devices, it looks likely that the industry will become less dependent on STBs going forward.”

So we see the industry preparing for a future entertainment landscape that in many respects will be less set-top-centric, with more focus on app-based aggregation strategy complementary to STB-centric provision. Still, the STB remains the #1 device to freely aggregate, monetise and control the E2E customer experience.

The evolution of the STB from a technical perspective

The specification of set-top boxes typically deployed has changed rapidly. Newer generation receivers, say those from 2018 to today, feature 20K DMIPS (a benchmark for CPU architectures that indicates processing speed) and 3 GB RAM. Conversely, legacy devices of older vintage deliver just 5-7K DMIPS with only 1 GB RAM available. These parameters primarily determine the performance potential of the device and the resultant user experience. Lower-spec hardware has restrictions in terms of file sizes that can be handled, for instance, quantity of images that can be effectively processed, and how the UX needs to be structured.

In a modern UI for instance, images in galleries can be up to 0.5 Mbyte if 4K. Older STBs simply couldn’t cope; there might be just 1 Gigabyte total RAM to play with, and the browser can only use  a fraction of that. The browser might be able to get access to 350 Megabytes, but only a scant fifth of that is available for your web app.

Try to squeeze a modern UI web page in that severely resource-strapped legacy UX and you don’t get far before significant degradation or a crash.

Operators want to keep the UX on legacy and next-gen STBs broadly in sync to provide the same brand and customer experience across all touch points. So how do we economically innovate on next-gen with modern, intuitive navigation and user experience, while keep delivering the best possible UX to those longstanding subscribers, to effectively reward their loyalty, using legacy hardware?

Capture Lightning

There are a number of methodologies that an operator can employ to help achieve the joint ambitions of developing a new, next-gen user experience across multiple devices with the greatest possible efficiency, meanwhile rejuvenating a clunky legacy UI/UX.

Most earlier-generation STBs were made for zapping (remember that?) and might never have been upgraded since being installed. So the UI/UX might have an older look and feel, lack animations and transitions, and just generally not work very well.

There are ways to give the tired old UX a new lease of life. A legacy user experience can be given a modern feel with a new UI/UX implementation that includes more current widgets and styles, and other delights found in Android TV and Apple TV experiences.

What's more, as long as there’s a reasonable browser, this UX ‘upgrade’ can be done with little or no cost implications on the STB’s middleware stack - this being especially handy if the STB vendor has stopped supporting middleware on such vintage hardware.

Older STBs can seem to perform better, and be better, by embracing technological developments such as LightningJS.

3SS has become an enthusiastic exponent of LightningJS, the rapidly emerging technology framework spearheaded by Metrological. LightningJS is an open-source JavaScript development platform that uses WebGL for rendering. It enables the operator to bypass the generic html/js/css/dom approach to rendering which is resource-intensive and impacts UI performance.

Most legacy systems are based on web apps. In a classic HTML document, there are complex instructions on how to structure, parse, and render the UI elements on screen. LightningJS, on the other hand, is a methodology whereby the legacy STB’s GPU capabilities can be accessed directly and used to ‘draw’ pages. When you eliminate abstraction, and simplify the process, the browser has far fewer challenges to contend with. If the box has no GPU or a low-spec one, there are limitations to what can be achieved in the UI/UX. But there are workarounds including the use of Canvas. Overall, this different way of rendering is highly beneficial, and the resultant UI/UX quality and performance is probably its strongest selling point.

As the benefits of embracing the framework become more widely known, LightningJS has become a community and ecosystem. LightningJS is particularly powerful in the context of smart TV apps, which are playing an ever-more central role in pay-TV operators’ service roadmaps. With LightningJS, smart TV UI performance can be boosted by as much as 50%.

But LightningJS can also efficiently power legacy RDK and Linux set-tops. With specialist support, an operator can leverage LightningJS to provide legacy customers with a user experience that performs better, looks modern, and simultaneously powers STB and smart TV experiences. This cross-platform approach reduces costs and benefits from higher synergies.

Moreover, putting LightningJS at the heart of a cross-device deployment strategy imbues operating efficiency throughout.


Today service providers are moving towards cross-device design and development

Cost-conscious operators today are keen to breathe new life into their legacy Linux or RDK platforms and in parallel increase reach with apps for smart TVs and OTT streaming devices. Such a unified approach is now recognised to reduce development efforts and complexity, while enabling faster updates and service innovations, with one team, one development track.

The same codebase employed for smart TVs can also rejuvenate legacy set-tops, with the opportunity to deliver a consistent modern UI/UX across new and older devices alike. The usable lifetime of legacy boxes can be extended by an additional three years in most cases, providing a nice return on investment uptick.

Currently, we’re helping a European broadband and TV service provider to migrate to a feature-rich, next-generation multi-device TV service including the latest Android TV set-top boxes. But part of the operator’s larger strategy is to reinvigorate existing Linux boxes with an enhanced, LightningJS-enabled UI/UX. Additional support is also being provided for smart TVs, Fire TV, Apple TV and other major mobile consumer devices.


Conclusion

New technology paradigms like LightningJS, React Native and Flutter are transforming how we can develop for multiple devices. Advanced user interfaces are being delivered to brand new set-tops and at the same time, UI/UX on legacy devices is dramatically enhanced. Pure economic need is driving this change. But a huge benefit of this new approach is that in addition to mitigating churn, it’s demonstrably sustainable.

Best of all, it all can be done over the air, further demonstrating the capability and inherent resource efficiency of this approach – it paints a pretty picture from all angles.

We never agree with those who predict imminent doom for the set-top box. With the right software and engineering, operators can manage all services in a unified way, and provide a harmonious user experience across devices new and old. This approach also goes a long way to ensuring that the service provider is prepared for whatever the future has in store.

Adopting the methodologies outlined here results in huge savings in costs, and in environmental waste. Those ageing set-tops are effectively upcycled, delivering good user experiences, seemingly by magic, and everyone benefits.

It truly is a win-win-win, for operators, viewers, and for sustainability.