Why It’s A Headache To Develop For The Connected TV

Mobile app publishers think they have it bad. Not only do they have to support Android and iOS, but all of the different screen sizes, versions of each operating system and now even apps for cars and watches.

Mobile devs need to quit their whining. Of all categories of app publishers and content creators, television and filmmakers have it the worst. The biggest headaches in app development right now come from the TV and film app makers that must figure out what will be the dominant form of viewership and interaction for video content in the near and long term future.

The fragmentation in the Connected TV landscape is dizzying. Few manufacturers can agree on a common operating system for Smart TV apps. Samsung is pushing Tizen, LG has webOS 2.0, Panasonic uses Firefox OS. Sharp and Sony will bake Android TV into their sets in 2015.

That is just the Smart TV landscape. Add in the fact that game consoles (Xbox and Playstation) are the most dominant form of streaming devices and that streaming sets and dongles (Roku, Chromecast, Nexus Player, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Stick etc.) are increasingly cheap and popular and you have a fragmented ecosystem that puts Android to shame.

See also: The Law Of Diminishing Returns For 4K TV

On top of the operating system and device landscape, nobody can quite agree on preferred video standards, how to handle varying screen display qualities or trust that the Internet Service Providers will provide quality and affordable broadband to make sure that streaming content actually looks good on any variety of screens.

Of course, the TV and film publishers have to support mobile devices and all the logistical problems those platforms offer as well.

“A lot of work, a lot of money. And those products … you can’t just put them out there and forget about them. It is a big shift in how we do stuff. It used to be just a website,” said Jon Mantell, vice president of mobile entertainment and video at CBS, in an interview with ARC at CES 2015.

The Real Multi-Channel

10 years ago, “multi-channel” in the world of TV meant that people had cable subscriptions that featured hundreds of different TV networks. How cute and antiquated that notion seems in 2015.

The television may be the most dominant of all screens. But it is no longer the only screen that media makers need to prioritize.

Viewers expect ubiquity. If they buy a Smart TV, streaming box or dongle, game console, smartphone or tablet, they presume that the apps they have come to know and trust will be on their new gadget. The biggest complaints users have often stem not from performance or usability issues (though those are real concerns), but from lack of access on their chosen platform.

In Depth: The Evolution Of The Television

For instance, one of the biggest complaints of Windows Phone users for years was the fact that apps like Instagram or Spotify were not available on their devices.

For TV and film app publishers, the focus can no longer just be on the television set.

Yahoo-owned mobile analytics firm Flurry notes that apps have caught TV in time-of-use per day. In a report from November 2014, Flurry notes that app usage has climbed to 177 minutes per day, up from 158 in the first quarter of 2013 and 109 in 2012. In that same time frame, TV viewership has held steady at 168 minutes per day, according to data from the U.S. Bureau Of Labor Statistics.

The beauty of the apps economy is not just that we now all have super computers in our pockets. But the fact that people now have more choices and avenues to do anything, from business administration to communication. Media and video are undergoing a renaissance in distribution and interaction because of the evolution of the apps economy, even if the current climate software climate is extremely muddied and confusing.

So, how do companies determine what platforms to target and development priorities when there is no clear dominant force in the streaming market?

“Very carefully,” Mantell joked. “It is a big change in content production, distribution … the whole change is pretty major.”

“We are not the first. Hulu and Netflix push really hard to be on the new platforms. It takes a lot of resources to be on all these platforms.”

CBS has about 30 to 40 engineers working on various software and app-related projects. But Mantell noted that the group of engineers may be spread across as many as 10 projects at any one time.

Fragmentation and prioritization may be problem areas for TV app builders, but content standards can be just as frustrating.

For instance, the coming era of Ultra HD and 4K television displays. How do television and film content producers determine when and how to push towards 4K, especially considering that most consumers do not own a 4K TV and probably will not for several years?

“You will have 4K TV at the highest rendition with a 4K enabled stream. But you are not going to deliver that stream to your iPhone when you’re cruising around,” said Jeff Clark, head of video monetization at Google, in a short interview with ARC at CES.

Once video is produced to 4K standards, how do networks and studios distribute it in the multi-channel ecosystem where people watch from the lowliest smartphones to the biggest and most impressive TVs?

“I think that issue is resolved through adaptive bitrate streaming. I think that adaptive bitrate streaming will solve the problem,” Clark said. “I don’t think it is going to be as tough as a problem.”

Adaptive bitrate streaming is a technique for feeding multimedia (video or audio) over multiple computer networks. These days, adaptive bitrate streaming is primarily done through HTTP. In adaptive bitrate streaming, video can be encoded at numerous bit rates (the rate at which bits — pieces of digital data that send information from one place to another — is processed over a period of time) and can respond to a computer’s available resources (such as broadband speed or screen size). Adaptive bitrate streaming is kind of like the responsive design of the video streaming world.

From a content delivery perspective, adaptive bitrate streaming can allow media producers to record at the highest quality rate and then let the content delivery network work out the details of how a video shows up on an iPhone or a Samsung S’UHD television.

Adaptive bitrate streaming is fairly complex and the total amount of devices and standards that need to be met make it even more so. Like almost everything else in the realm of TV apps, developers and publishers are still in a wait-and-see period, determining what the dominant platforms will be and if 4K video is worth the price to produce and distribute it.

“I think it is yet to be seen how important it is, especially on the TV side,” Mantell said. “I think going from there to 4K, I’m still not completely convinced that is something that is going to transform the industry.”

Originally published at arc.applause.com on January 14, 2015.

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