Will Android kill middleware as we know it?

Google’s Android operating system took just a few years to go from upstart newcomer to dominating the global mobile market. Can it do the same for TV?

In my last blog, Android for STBs: What every pay TV operator should know,  I described the options available to operators: the “plug-and-play” Android TV service, and the more customizable self-build route based on AOSP. Is this combination enough to kill-off the market in proprietary middleware?

Android TV’s benefits outweigh operator doubts

Telcos like Swisscom, KDDI and Telecom Italia swiftly adopted AOSP and Android TV, but pay TV operators have been cautious, fearing Google’s influence on their business. What if a future strategic shift sees Google exit the STB market, leaving the operator with an unsupported platform?

Operators seem increasingly willing to overlook such legitimate concerns because Android’s benefits are so great (and because middleware providers can also exit the market).

First among Android TV’s charms is the potential to slash both costs and timescales for developing and launching a new STB UX compared to middleware-based boxes. Off-the-shelf support for voice search, recommendations and an app store stuff with third-party apps are a big attraction.

And although it’s hard to predict what technologies lie ahead, operators expect Google to integrate innovations such as virtual reality as standard, reducing the need for their own technology roadmap.

The battle for HDMI1

Android TV’s ready-made app store may be great for time-to-market, but it means operators can’t limit the choice of apps on their box. Subscribers are free to download a direct competitor’s app on an operator’s subsidized STB.

This concern leads many operators to favor AOSP, but others have simply accepted that consumers are now in control. If a subscriber wants Netflix, they will get it. Even if it means buying a separate OTT device which could eventually supplant the pay TV box altogether. Operators tell us it’s safer to allow rival apps on their managed STBs and retain control of the subscriber’s HDMI1 port. Some are even willing to accept cord-cutting in the short term because it’s easier to re-connect a subscriber that’s still using your box.

Chips aren’t cheap

Of course, UX development isn’t the only cost consideration for a STB platform. Android TV has typically required a pretty high-end chipset to achieve the necessary graphics performance. But Google has halted incremental rises in chipset specs and leading manufacturers have already responded with middle-priced chips to support Android TV. Much cheaper compatible chips will surely follow, adding to the appeal of Android.

The end for proprietary middleware

So here is my prediction: within five to 10 years, no newly developed STB platform will use proprietary middleware. Operators launching hybrid STBs will choose Android or another open source middleware. Examples include RDK, developed by Comcast and friends, which requires more UX development effort than AOSP, and Frog by French company WyPlay. Low-cost markets without reliable or widespread broadband access will stick with middleware-free zapper boxes without PVR or hybrid features.