Video services

Will Google Droid Up the Set-Top Box?

While much of Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s $12.5 billion deal for Motorola Mobility LLC has centered on mobile devices and patent protection, the buy may also help Google bridge Android to a set-top world that's been under the tight control of cable operators and other video service providers. (See Google Buying Moto Mobility for $12.5B and Google Plays Favorites With Moto Buy.)

Most analysts agree that Google's timing for Android couldn't be better as MSOs start to migrate to IP-based video platforms and more capable set-tops and gateways, but they question whether MSOs will want to play ball with Google, even if it becomes a corporate cousin to one of the cable industry's biggest suppliers.

The Android OS and app market could help cable unclog its set-top software and applications bottleneck and help MSOs innovate in an area where platforms such as tru2way have not, says Imran Shah, managing partner at Interactive Broadband Consulting Group LLC (IBB) , a firm that counts Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) among its clients. (See Tru2way: Epic Fail at Retail.)

"The software environment is wide open" as cable operators launch their IP video migration plans and start to mix in IP-only boxes as well as hybrid QAM/IP video gateways, Shah says. "The timing is really good if Google can play it right."

But to make it work, he thinks Google, in conjunction with Motorola Mobility, must do a better job working with MSOs if it's to have success integrating navigation and search apps that must be tightly coupled with an operator's pay-TV service, rather than focusing on lighter, widget-like "over-the-top" apps that it's been using on the Google TV platform.

"To really add value, Google must have a deeper integration with the cable [operators]," Shah adds.

Teresa Mastrangelo, Infonetics Research Inc. directing analyst, video, agrees that Android has a more direct path into the cable set-top box world as MSOs enter the early phase of next-gen box deployments. "It would open up a completely different type of experience," she says.

Android courts cable
Alticast Corp. has been pitching the Android option to cable operators for a while. In January at the Consumer Electronics Show, the set-top software specialist demonstrated a set-top box equipped with dual tru2way and Android stacks. Alticast's idea was to help MSOs preserve their tru2way middleware and apps (in this case, guides, video-on-demand clients and a few widgets) investments while also giving them access to the much larger and open Android marketplace. (See CES 2011: Alticast's Android Angle.)

So far, most of the traction for Android-in-the-set-top has occurred outside of North America, a market that's hindered by a massive legacy of older digital cable boxes that can't use Android, anyway.

Alticast developed its Android proof of concept for Korea Telecom. Mastrangelo notes that she's seen Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763) build Android boxes for the Chinese pay-TV market, and has seen some other, smaller set-top makers create Android products for pockets of Europe.

Would MSOs go for it?
Mastrangelo notes that MSO desire -- not Google's or Motorola's -- will determine whether Android stands a chance of gracing the cable boxes of the future. "It's unclear on how they [the MSOs] feel about it."

And at least one analyst doesn't give Android much of a fighting chance. Colin Dixon, senior partner at The Diffusion Group (TDG) , says MSOs have little interest in flipping their set-tops to Android or a Google TV-like environment anytime soon.

"Operators won't do it," he says. "They have enough different types of old boxes now. Operators want a single guide solution. If they start deploying Android STBs, they can't get to a single electronic guide."

And Google TV's lack of success hasn't exactly won it any cable fans. "There is negative interest in the cable companies for Google TV," he says. "If you want to kill a product line, put Google TV on the STBs. I don't think you'll find a single operator interested in it." (See Dish's Google TV Exclusive Will Be Brief , Google TV Guns for Cable Deals and Dish Still Serving Google TV .)

But Will Richmond, an online video analyst and founder of Broadband Directions LLC , says a Google TV-cable connection "has some appeal" for cable operators, noting that a tight integration could help MSOs bring the app model to the TV and perhaps give them a monthly revenue lift if they're able to charge extra for that capability.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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