The cable industry relied on closed, proprietary systems for decades.
With content and the user interface experience locked up in a draconian system of conditional access technologies tied to custom hardware, the cable industry couldn't get out of its own way until the Internet forced innovation in its face.
But now things are changing. Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) has been running its X1 video service on an OpenStack cloud for more than two years. Last year, RGB Networks, before its acquisition by Imagine Communications , open-sourced its video transcoding solution, and the company's customer base -- which migrated with it to Imagine -- included a number of major cable companies, notably Comcast. (See RGB Opens Up Transcoding Market.)
Early in September, Concurrent Computer Corp. (Nasdaq: CCUR) announced an open source content delivery network solution. Even more recently, the company open-sourced its transparent caching technology -- a way to help operators support over-the-top video delivery alongside content delivered over their own managed networks. (See Concurrent Announces Open-Source Transparent Caching Solution.)
The primary reason Concurrent decided to take the open source route? CEO Derek Elder told Light Reading it's because Tier 1 cable companies are "moving toward a really open source model." And where Tier 1 customers go, vendors are bound to follow.
"[It's] about innovation velocity, and not being locked in," Elder said, citing the reasons operators are bullish on open source. The advantages are that it crowd-sources development, brings more solution providers into the mix and can speed up product releases and improvements in an increasingly software-driven industry.
The open source approach doesn't mean vendors are giving everything away for free. Instead, it's pushing technology providers toward more of a services business model rather than a product-based one.
Concurrent, for instance, is now selling support services on top of its open source transparent caching solution. For a fee, Concurrent will not only install the solution in an operator's network, it will also manage the ongoing signature analysis necessary to make sure content is being cached efficiently. The service is something large cable companies can handle on their own, but smaller ones often don't have the resources to manage. Concurrent wants to make open source technologies accessible to those smaller operators.
Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC)'s Simon Frost, head of media marketing and communications, however, cautioned in another interview that open source is "not a panacea." Even where there's a desire to open source cable technology, it's not always practical.
On a similar note, nScreenMedia Chief Analyst Colin Dixon, speaking recently about Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)'s acquisition of 1 Mainstream, explained why that startup's proprietary solution for turning video services into OTT apps isn't a negative for the industry. "There is no open standard for the delivery of apps on devices," noted Dixon. He added that "the problem is that there are just so many different platforms. Any solution that can reach many with a simple approach like this is probably going to be welcomed by most people."
In other words, a near-term solution in this case that brings control to the chaos of OTT video delivery still trumps the longer-term benefits of an open, community-driven approach.
The move toward open source is also a big cultural change for the insular cable industry. Working together doesn't come naturally, but vendors are finding ways to collaborate when pushed to do so. Witness the latest open source effort around broadband CPE. Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) and Cisco, two major rivals in the cable space, have both contributed code to the RDK-B software stack and are both actively involved in bringing the open standard to market. (See RDK-B Could Revolutionize Home Network.)
It helps that Comcast has become a vocal advocate for open source technology. It also helps that there is new and significant competitive pressure from companies like Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX).
Not everything in the cable industry will go open source, and not everything that does will transition quickly. But open source solutions are going to play a greater and greater role over the next several years… whether cable is ready or not.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading