Wandering around the floor of TV Connect 2015, I am shocked by how many companies are still producing set top boxes (STBs). There must be over a dozen different devices on display all promoting the same value proposition—a better way to access content. But what are they for anyway? Well, STBs basically process an incoming signal—they take the input, verify rights by communicating back to the operator, and then decode the video for playback. And although the devices at TV Connect and other industry shows have advanced considerably from most of the STBs that we have in our living rooms today (by integrating OTT, IPTV, and traditional broadcast), they still reek of “legacy technology.”
But if we didn’t have STBs, what would take their place? Even if consumers move purely to IP-based content delivery (which is happening, as cable operators continue to lose subscribers, pure IPTV multi-channel providers like Verizon, AT&T, and others gain them) there still has to be some decoding and authentication done before the broadcast can be viewed. Even the IPTV operators need to ensure viewer authenticity (which is why you still have a STB with Verizon Fios and other IPTV providers). And how would we get the content onto our television screens if there were no dedicated device connected to it?
The answer to that might be simple—the cloud.
To fight against subscriber loss, many cable operators are launching TV Everywhere (TVE) services that require users to login via a webpage making subscriber-authentication carried out remotely rather than locally via the STB. What’s more, playback is browser based meaning all of the video decoding is handled via the codec integrated within the browser. The same goes for OTT content—it’s all coming over HTTP with authentication handled in the cloud and video decoding handled by the browser (or app). If this is the case, there’s no need for a STB anymore. All that’s needed is a way to get the browser-based content onto the big screen.
In this scenario, where all content is delivered via the cloud, there are a host of devices that could take on the functionality of STBs:
- SmartTVs—no need to connect any external devices so long as the SmartTV has the application to access the content. Unfortunately, this solution requires all content owners to which a viewer subscribes to have applications on all of the SmartTV platforms. And what if the user moves to a different SmartTV platform (like from LG to Samsung)? Although this might seem like the ideal solution, it’s actually a little clunky. The SmartTV would most likely need a “STB-like” application that could combine multiple HTTP-based sources of content into a single interface.
- Laptops, tablets, and smartphones—consumers are already using their devices to watch content, logging into services through the browser or application. What’s more, it's not hard using Apple TV or Chromcast to “sling” the content to the big screen in the family room. But this requires that users have their devices out and in use (of course, plugged in as video decoding takes a significant amount of computational horsepower and battery life) and this makes them unusable for anything else while the content is playing. The major problem with this solution is that it requires a consistent WiFi signal. Without that, the playback gets easily disrupted (i.e., jerky and stilted).
- HDMI Computer sticks—devices like Intel’s Compute Stick are fully functional computers (running a variety of operating systems including Ubuntu and Windows) that plug directly into the HDMI port on a television. This is probably the ideal solution as it provides a computer-like interface for browser-based video content consumption (IPTV or OTT) but is a dedicated device unlike using an existing laptop, tablet, or smartphone. The computer can easily accept commands via a Bluetooth-connected mouse and keyboard. The problem though? Much like the SmartTV solution, it really requires a single application or website to aggregate content sources for a TV-like playback.
The problem with replacing the STB with content directly from the cloud, even though video consumption is rapidly moving towards IP and HTTP delivery, is that the experience doesn’t mimic what we are used to. We want the simplicity of sitting down at the couch, grabbing the remote, and watching content. When we watch video, we want a “broadcast quality” experience. Only there’s nothing like the incumbent STB to provide that. Sure, there are multiple ways to get cloud-based content onto the big screen and effectively replace the STB but the experience of consuming content through those other solutions is far from desirable.
The days of the STB are definitely numbered. I would guess that it’s only a matter of time before someone develops a single application to aggregate OTT, IPTV, OTA, and even locally stored video content into a single interface that can be accessed via the cloud from the big screen. When that day comes, we can finally say goodbye to the little black box with the blinking lights.