The need to support multiple platforms and cost-effective deployment remains unchanged, but there are still plenty of ways in which set top box (STB) developers are seeking to enhance their offers, writes David Davies.

The most recent set top box (STB) overview reveals a sector that continues to evolve in terms of its structure and the range of features that it provides to operators. In particular, the dramatic growth in streaming has heightened the need for solutions that are able to support multiple platforms to the same seamless standard. With many services possessing a much faster time-to-launch than we are used to from the linear TV sector, it’s critical that these solutions be possible to deploy quickly, easily and cost-effectively.

Amino New Visual

Amino: UK-based STB and TV device software company

As discussed last time, the sector is also being impacted by the rise of RDK (Reference Design Kit) – a modular and customisable open source software that standardises core functions used in video, broadband and Internet of Things devices. By providing a solid universal base for new product development, RDK is helping to curb development cycles and encourage collaboration.

Therefore, we can now observe a section of the industry in which activity is tending to resolve around Android TV, Linux and, increasingly, RDK. Indeed, the Reference Design Kit exceeded 80 million device deployments worldwide in late 2021, up by 20 million from the previous year, demonstrating the ferocious pace of uptake.

But whilst this consolidation is undeniable, it certainly doesn’t appear to be inhibiting the innovative scope of vendors – working together or in collaboration.

Read more The Set Top Box Revolution

‘Power, flexibility and speed to market’

For a current example, consider the partnership between UK-based STB and TV device software company Amino and technology R&D and RDK expert Consult Red. As a result, Consult Red has enabled Amino to integrate its AminoOS software with RDK-V (RDK for video), providing operators with a way to benefit from the pre-certified OTT services and standards available through RDK. It also yields a seamless migration path between existing Amino 7 series and the latest generation of devices.

Specific features highlighted by Amino include: the pre-integration of components that allow customers to reduce their time to market; support for existing Amino OS APIs that mean customers can run the same middleware solution on new RDK-V devices as well as on earlier generations of products; combining RDK and AminoOS so operators can launch premium apps and app stores more easily; and Amino Engage management tools, allowing operators to centralise device management and app updates without custom integration.

Vewd OpX

Vewd OpX

Rahul Mehra, CTO at Consult Red, comments: “In the past, video operators looking for devices that provided power, flexibility and speed-to-market couldn’t have all three – leading to deployments that were either inflexible, lacking features or slow to market. The investment made to support RDK at some of the world’s largest video operators means that all operators can now utilise RDK to quickly launch advanced video services that combine power and flexibility.”

Jonny McKee, VP product management and customer support at Amino, adds: “Consult Red was an ideal partner for us; not only do they have a great deal of experience of RDK software integration, but additionally they have already worked with Amlogic SoCs. The specialist experience of Consult Red ensured that the right architectural software decisions were made at the start of the project, enabling it to run smoothly and on time.”

‘Technology shift to OTT’

Marco Frattolin, head of operator products at TV software solutions company Vewd, also highlights the impact of standardisation amidst the rise of streaming. “The technology shift to OTT has standardised video delivery protocols and formats, while also creating requirements to support all the major OTT apps,” he says. “The combination of these factors favours STB software solutions such as Android or RDK where OTT features and apps are in theory already available, leaving operators to focus on the UX (user experience), content and services. Another good solution for operators is to deliver their services on BYOD devices; however, in this case, their control of the UX can be limited and they may end up as one app among many others.”

Vewd Marco Frattolin headshot

Marco Frattolin, Vewd 

For Vewd, improving the UX is very much a continuing priority, as underlined by a host of developments to hit the market recently. They include Vewd OpX, which is a cloud-managed, carrier-grade STB UX that integrates operator services with OTT content. It is based on a flexible set of data-driven modules that can be combined to build or enhance a pay TV UX. It is available cross-OS and cross-platform on Linux, Android and RDK devices. Then there is Vewd Content Suite – a set of cloud-based tools that enable entertainment from all online sources to be super-aggregated, presented, managed and structured in a unified way in the UX of STBs, smart TVs and other screen-based connected devices.

Frattolin also provides some insight into the longer-term trends affecting the sector. At present, he says, “STBs are still the main priority for most operators compared with other devices. However, with the availability of other options, their share is in relative decline. It’s now possible to deliver full pay-TV services over OTT, making the STB less critical from a technical perspective compared with BYOD and OTT devices.” Nonetheless, he stresses the ongoing importance of STBs as a “hardware presence” and their ability to “ensure a high quality of service”.

Jonny McKee

Jonny McKee, Amino

Meanwhile, Vewd is continuing to develop its smart TV/STB software-as-a-service solution, Operator TV, and Frattolin offers this glimpse of forthcoming plans: “From a hardware perspective, operators are under pressure and need more cost-effective ways to deliver and control hardware devices in the home. At the same time, they need a controlled and managed UX. Vewd’s offerings for 2022-2023 will address those key requirements.”

Rolling out RDK

Elsewhere, there are further signs that we should expect RDK to be generating sector headlines for a long time to come. Another major player, SmartLabs, recently announced the addition of RDK to its product portfolio, highlighting the platform’s “vast customisation opportunities” that mean unique features can be developed with greater ease. The company already has extensive experience of integrating into RDK into a multi-device solution, and also launched the RDK inclusive SML 5045 STB.

Gary Hamer, SmartLabs’ global VP for business development, comments: “Our RDK solutions are another facet of SmartLabs’ integration and migration offerings. Like the solution we have for Linux and Android, we see RDK as another route for us to help operators future-proof legacy systems, without having to completely replace existing hardware.”

Indeed, this last comment serves as something of a reflection of the broader STB sector at present. The rise of new content services – sometimes very quickly and with little fanfare – means that operators face an increased challenge to ensure that customers everywhere can access services easily, reliably and cost-effectively. That can be difficult even when the market isn’t as unpredictable and disruptive as it is right now. Fortunately, the signs are that many vendors have fully appreciated this – not to mention the fact that it calls for closer collaboration between developers than was previously the case. Hence, there is every reason to expect that this sector will continue to be robust and dynamic for the foreseeable future.