Everyone starting to go “All in” on voice – not just Dish

A headline passed our desk this week suggesting that US DTH player Dish Network has gone “All in” on Voice Control. It’s a cute gambling expression when you bet whatever you have left on one hand and in Dish’s case, it may well be appropriate.

Stock at Dish is not quite at a 52-week low, but currently there are no rumors about it merging with anyone or a lucrative deal to sell off its mountain of spectrum, and it has been those two items that have confounded investors throughout the year, instead of its obvious fundamentals, which suggest that it is in 5 year transition from a $15 billion DTH company, to one with far lower costs, which does $5 billion in OTT revenues. If any of the major US pay TV operators had to go all in on something, Dish is that company.

All that is meant by the announcement is that its new voice remote control can be sold to anyone who opts in, so that everyone who orders a Hopper DVR will automatically get one. Everyone else will have to choose to buy one.

It would not be so bad if Dish was not so far behind the market leader Comcast in this respect, which has almost 17 million users of a voice remote that it only launched 2.5 years ago. Comcast has already gone all-in and this quarter is perhaps the first in recent years when Comcast pay TV numbers fell off a cliff. In other words, people like voice remotes, and they use them – but it’s not enough to save anyone on its own in a US marketplace full of skinny bundle offers.

It may work better for Dish than it did for Comcast, because Comcast has fussed and fumbled over the introduction of its own skinny bundles. If it had been more aggressive in its desire to shift to generic OTT delivery, without for instance, putting most OTT options through its Xfinity X1 set top, it may have been able to keep pay TV reduction better at bay. Dish has not been shy about the introduction of Sling TV, and yet it has not tied it to the introduction of its set top, so you can have the Hopper as a DVR with voice control, OR Sling TV, but they do not come as part and parcel of a single package.

Perhaps OTT skinny bundles have one appeal, and voice control has another, to different parts of the market? Well if that was the case Roku would not have also this month gone all in on voice control, improving the natural language it uses in its new OS version 8, on its OTT platform (see separate story in this issue).

Also Liberty Global in Europe has introduced its first voice controlled set top experiment in Ireland this week while Swisscom has introduced a 3rd version of its IPTV experience – dubbed Entertainment OS3, built around its Google Android TV platform, using what we assume must be Google Assistant for voice control. So apparently Dish is just the latest to go all in on voice control.

Dish described its voice remote as second-generation, offering search and commands, motion-activated backlighting and Remote Finder. It also added customizable shortcut buttons on the remote for services like Netflix or Hulu.

It will allow any existing Hopper customers to upgrade to the voice remote for just $20. So this clearly works not only with the latest Hopper 3 whole home DVR, but also with other Hoppers and set tops, going back to 2012 onwards. Pretty much that would mean that any Dish customers could upgrade to a voice remote. The remote is compatible with all generations of DISH’s Hopper DVR, as well as Joey, Wireless Joey, 4K Joey and Super Joey clients.

And where there was a Hopper 3 whole home DVR, the device will work with the other set tops around the home too. So Dish could ship as many as 3 per home, in Hopper 3 households. Chances are that in two years, it will ship about one voice remote device for every home it has, at a rate of something close to 6.5 million a year, more than 500,000 a month, if it performs as well as Comcast.

Late last year a patent troll IPA Technologies filed suit against Dish over this very feature, suggesting that it invented the voice remote. If it was to win that particular case, there are a whole bunch of players it could go on to license (pester).

But although Dish is calling this generation 2.0 voice remote, Comcast really is on its 2nd generation device. What it has achieved by refining its middleware, which may have something to do with its switch to using Gracenote middleware, is to allow customers to do virtually everything on a voice remote that can be done on a remote. And commands like “take me back 5 minutes,” now work fine. Avoiding those adverts is now going to be pretty easy.

Niraj Desai, Dish VP of product management, said “In the not-so-distant future, we’ll begin to navigate our TV experience the same way we navigate human conversations. Our new voice remote is not only a technological stepping stone as natural language processing and machine learning progress, but it’s also an effort to bring customers along in the process by increasing their familiarization with voice control.”

Well, all pay TV operators had better hurry, or the generic voice assistants will control the nascent voice market, obviating the need for voice remotes. Alexa had shipped around 19 million devices by this June, after 9 million shipping over the Christmas period. It will likely hit well over 30 million in the US by January 2018, and Google Assistant is likely to annex many Android TV devices. We think that Dish is using Nuance for natural language, but we’re not told in this release.

It is tough to get the same level of metadata integration into all devices, and the chances are that some homes will have both Alexa, and Google and a voice remote, and get used to using whichever is to hand. We don’t subscribe to the idea that it is one or the other in each home. In fact the voice assistant market is likely to shake out eventually into devices which offer all of Alexa, Cortana, or Google or Siri, depending on your preference, all running on the same hardware. But there is a long way to go before that point is reached. So the real key to voice remotes is to make them understand highly specific terms relating to the job of controlling the TV experience. It may be a simple step from there to allow an API to access those voice commands to Alexa and others, so perhaps this is a short lived market, but we would say not. Remember voice assistants are trained to talk back, and so can handle more complex interactions, voice remotes are not.

One of the issues with a voice remote is finding it, and every operator has featured a “find me” feature, where you push a button on the TV or set top, and the remote beeps so you can find it. Alexa at least does not suffer from that problem.

In fact Dish’s voice control technology suite is already integrated into Amazon Alexa and users can ask Alexa to navigate, play, pause, fast-forward, rewind and search content based on channel, title, actor or genre. Dish claims to be the only TV provider to offer direct compatibility with Amazon Alexa, but of course it’s not the only pay TV operator to have those features as Comcast has them, so it is the only one that has them through Alexa.

Meanwhile long term natural language specialist Nuance has come out with a service offering with Virgin Media cable TV in Ireland, part of Liberty Global. Because Virgin does not ship the highly personalized Horizon TV box, and uses a TiVo device, this may only be a trial in Ireland which may roll-out across the whole UK at some point. TiVo already has its own voice features that anyone with a TiVo box can use, but clearly they chose not to use that.

But it might just be the first move of the entire Liberty Global cluster of pay TV operators across multiple territories, most of them in Europe, but not limited to Europe (Chile and the Caribbean are the other regions) and some 20 million plus target homes.

At this moment the voice experiment is only reachable through downloading an app to your smartphone, and we’re not sure which languages this makes available. Alexa for instance is only currently available in English and German with more languages due soon, while Google Assistant takes in French, German, Brazilian-Portuguese and Japanese, as well. But Nuance supports virtually any language, which makes it an easy decision for companies like Liberty Global.

Finally Swisscom TV has launched a new UI in a new set top, which we assume remains on the existing Google Android TV software. But it refers to it as a revamped operating system which it calls Entertainment OS3. It is likely this is something written on top of Android TV, by Swisscom. It can understand commands in Swiss German, standard German, French, Italian and English, which does not make it clear where the natural language is sourced.

The UI can be personalized and it offers 20 themes beneath the home screen, with current, upcoming and past programs, videos and content on demand via its Teleclub VoD serviced and it can open up various apps. The new service will include Sky TV programming, which is also new to Swisscom.