There's a land-grab taking place on cable set-tops.
Now that the industry has blessed the Reference Design Kit (RDK) -- the pre-integrated software bundle for IP video rollouts initially developed by Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) -- cable vendors are working overtime to sell their own software solutions designed to sit on top of the RDK stack. From such giants as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) to independent specialists like Espial Group Inc. and Alticast Corp. , everyone wants a piece of set-top software territory.
The context of the new turf war requires a brief history lesson. For years Motorola and Scientific Atlanta controlled the set-top environment because of their conditional access technology. Motorola boxes predominantly carried guide software from Gemstar-TV Guide International, which became Macrovision and then turned into Rovi Corp. , while Scientific Atlanta boxes shipped with that company's own SARA guide.
Through a combination of the separable security mandate and the surge in IP video, however, that duopoly started to fracture. The OCAP middleware era followed, and while the Open Cable Application Platform never lived up to its potential, it did lead eventually to RDK, which is rapidly becoming the de facto standard for IP video in the North American cable market and beyond. (See Bye Bye OCAP, Hello RDK.)
Fast forward to today. Now that several cable companies have standardized on the open RDK stack, lots of vendors see a fresh opportunity to grab space in the new set-top frontier land. Many of them are hoping that cable operators will sign off on another software stack, one that bundles several functions together and works in conjunction with RDK. In theory, selling a stack is more valuable than selling a single application. And in an ideal scenario for these vendors, cable companies would standardize on the second stack, locking up set-top real estate across multiple MSO footprints.
Mike Paxton, a senior analyst at SNL Kagan , however, believes that cable operators don't necessarily want to standardize on software above the RDK level. Instead, it appears that the MSOs would rather encourage competition and further development. "It almost seems to me like the operators … are saying develop around RDK and show us something cool or different on top of that," said Paxton.
Many vendors are trying to do just that, differentiating their software stacks with different types of advanced features.
Some of the companies recently touting new software stacks include Espial, Minerva Networks Inc. , and Zodiac Interactive . Espial was one of the first companies to license the RDK bundle, and the company started showcasing the Espial STB Client in the first half of 2013.
The Espial software stack includes an application framework that supports traditional program guides, an HTML5 browser, DVR functions, and video on demand. Espial also offers its own HTML5-based user interface that operators can implement if they choose. The company's RDK-compliant software stack has already been deployed by an unnamed Tier 1 North American cable operator.
Minerva is a long-time middleware provider in the telecom industry, but it is coming out with its own RDK-compliant software for the cable market this summer. The Minerva 10 platform running on RDK will operate on hybrid QAM/IP video gateways, and is specifically designed to deliver multiscreen service to both managed and unmanaged devices. The platform also comes with a user interface framework, including Minerva's own HTML5 guide and native applications for mobile devices, streaming media players, and connected TVs. (See Minerva Goes Multiscreen With RDK.)
Zodiac's software stack is notable because it uses a blend of cloud-based and client-based software components to support not only newer set-tops but also legacy boxes like the old Motorola DCT2000. The PowerUp Video Broadcast Solution (VBS) supports multiscreen video delivery and integrates with HTML5 for next-generation UI designs. Zodiac has two large service provider customers using PowerUp VBS in North America. One is Charter Communications Inc. , while the other is still unnamed. (See Zodiac: One Software Stack to Rule Them All.)
Alticast is yet another veteran middleware vendor that has put its own twist on RDK integration. By combining RDK with Android, Alticast has created a software solution for pay-TV providers who want to deploy HDMI streaming sticks instead of, or in addition to, traditional set-tops. The company also has its own HTML5 program guide, dubbed the Windmill user interface. (See Alticast Primps for Vegas Spotlight.)
Beyond these independent software suppliers, there are also large competitors, including Cisco and Arris, who are selling platforms that include software modules for everything from HTML5-based UIs to advanced advertising, content management, content security, multiscreen service delivery, and more. Both Cisco and Arris have made a big push for their respective Videoscape and Medios platforms. But, as cable operators appear to be expressing their preference for more targeted products, the two companies are just as likely now to promote single services like cloud DVR as the larger end-to-end solutions.
In analyst Paxton's view, no vendor has yet come out with a single killer app or software stack, which means that competition will likely remain fierce. "There's a lot of maneuvering and jockeying for position," he said.
That's certainly a very different situation than existed only a few years ago. The cable software market is now wide open.
— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading