Operators tempted by Google’s Greek gifts of Android TV, others wary

Google was an elephant in the room at IBC 2017, wooing operators with its latest version of Android TV, which allows them more control over recommendations so that they can prioritize their own content above third-party OTT material. At the same time operators gain access to the extensive Android app ecosystem as well as a platform for unifying linear broadcast and third-party OTT services within a common and consistent UI. They also have plenty of vendors offering tools to help them deploy Android TV effectively. Sweden’s Accedo was one, peddling its Operator Tier Android TV Launcher as a platform within its Studio Pay TV edition product at IBC.

The flipside is that Google can get access to search and user activity data in the living room, which has been its ambition all along to complement its position online. All its activities on the hardware front should be viewed through the lens of data and software which are its real focus. This includes its recent $1.1 billion deal with Taiwan’s HTC to expand its smartphone business, involving transfer of 2000 staff from HTC to Google.

HTC already makes Google’s smartphones, the Pixel and Pixel XL with updated versions due out in October 2017. This looked like an about turn after the debacle with Motorola Mobility, which Google bought for $12.5 billion in 2011 only to spew it out piece by piece over the next few years to exit the phone business completely in 2014. The reasoning was partly that the phones did not sell well but mainly that it was pushing some of its device partners towards alternative operating systems and distracting Google from its strategy of getting Android on every device.

That is still the strategy but Google’s decision to get back into smartphones with HTC is about doing that more effectively and catching up with Apple’s ability to update its massive user base with the latest mobile operating system within hours. While Android’s updates are at least as innovative it can take months for features to percolate down to all the users.

So Google acted to get more control over the ecosystem and acquire a hardware team that will allow it to match Apple’s tight control over how features work in devices. However, HTC only has a tiny 1% share of the global smartphone market, so the question lies in what Google’s strategy is for its much larger licensing partners like Samsung and LG – who, on the surface, should not be happy with the HTC move. It may be Google’s way of exerting pressure to make the Android experience more consistent and the ecosystem less fragmented with all the different versions.

In fact, there is evidence of this in Google’s increasingly close partnership with Nokia, whose Android phones, including the Nokia 6, Nokia 5, and Nokia 3, run much closer to a clean vanilla version of Android than others like Samsung. Significantly, Nokia can issue updates to Android much faster, more like the Apple timespan.

In the living room, Google has almost gone in the opposite direction by encouraging diversification and allowing operators to put their own stamp on the service. But then there was little choice if Google was to have a chance of achieving its greater ambition of finally conquering the home TV to get the data and deliver software within the Android ecosystem. It has also had to effectively rebrand apps as channels. Google is now splitting up recommendations by service, so that Netflix, YouTube and other apps on the platform automatically get their own channel, or row.

That in turn means operators and publishers can prioritize their TV shows, movies and other content above say Netflix or YouTube within their guides. They can also give users the option to customize their guides.

Naturally, vendors of products supporting this integration such as Accedo, whose CEO Michael Lantz were talking up these benefits, argue that with the help of its Android launcher, operators could get to market much quicker and integrate with end content management systems, back-office components and the video infrastructure more easily. With a cloud-based user interface management platform, operators can brand and re-configure the Launcher with a customized UI for each deployment.

Not surprisingly, vendors offering their own virtual set top platforms competing with Android take a different line. For example, France’s Netgem was advising actual and prospective customers to balance the true benefits of Android against what they give up. It warned them to consider Google’s real ambitions and question why they should want to concede the gold dust of their data for what might be marginal convenience.

It urged European broadcasters and operators in particular instead to embrace the HbbTV hybrid platform for combining their own linear services with third party OTT. Netgem itself was promoting its partnership with Amazon Prime Video, which puts the service on pay TV set tops just as Netflix already is in many cases.

It may be that larger operators are more likely to take the HbbTV line, while smaller ones may find Google’s overtures irresistible, especially medium size telcos seeking to launch significant pay TV services for the first time. But Google has taken some large scalps as well, such as KDDI in Japan and Telecom Italia. It looks like Google has recruited some others at or around IBC, but with no firm clues over names as yet.

Google has certainly been successful in infiltrating some of the key pay TV middleware platforms. One of the first was Ericsson’s MediaFirst TV platform, which was integrated onto the Android TV OS in 2016 to highlight Google’s intention of playing a greater role in the tier 1 pay TV marketplace. Android is also likely to play a key role in Nokia’s AnyVision strategy announced at IBC. However, as that is really little more than a vision at present, details are sketchy, apart from the obvious intention of harnessing Nokia’s smartphones which already are more tightly wedded to Android than rivals.