How to Develop a TV App for 10 Devices

This article was originally published in Rapid TV News.

tv appsDeveloping an incredible OTT TV app that meets your business needs and also creates a real buzz with consumers can prove tricky. Doing this across 10 plus platforms (like AppleTV, Amazon Fire, Roku, connected TVs etc.) sounds impossible. But it can actually be done, if planned and executed correctly. Here are some of the lessons we learned when doing this.

 

Planning

Building apps for such a fragmented market requires vision, a well thought-out development plan, and relatively deep pockets. But get the app development right and, provided you have great content too, the positive results will speak for themselves.

Creating TV apps is really expensive so combining multiple business models – transactions, subscriptions, advertising, and freemium – to provide flexibility and maximize revenues is critical. Plus adding dynamic ad insertion, VOD and cloud DVR functionality can further increase revenue potential. Much like in the print magazine world, where consumers used to subscribe to more than one magazine to reflect their multiple interests and hobbies, most people will eventually subscribe to more than one OTT service too. But for this to happen subscription prices need to be squeezed.

In this scenario, having a TV app that supports multiple business models – and makes upselling and cross-selling as friction-free as possible – is the only way to realize revenues and profits.

All of this requires a very strong backend system that offers all of the API calls needed to manage the various business rules. In addition, the same platform must be very smart so it is able to distinguish between devices. With the massive fragmentation in the market, different devices require different technologies to perform the same task. For example, the backend will need to support at least three different DRM standards to deliver encrypted content to all devices;  the same backend will likely need to support two or three streaming technologies; and the same complexity exists for tracking analytics and running ads. Therefore, you will need a backend that is like a toolbox and can use different technologies in different scenarios.

 

Writing Code

In such a fragmented market it would be great to reap efficiencies by using the same code with minor variations. Unfortunately, from a technical point of view, this is not easy. Most of the development for smart TVs, Playstation, Wii U, and Amazon Fire is done with a combination of JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. Replacing the HTML and CSS with custom UI or libraries opens up Apple TV and Xbox One. And Xbox 360 requires C# and XAML. But other platforms use proprietary languages: Roku uses BrightScript, Android native is required for Android TV, phones, and tablets, and of course iOS devices require iOS native. So what’s the best approach?

The smartest thing to do is to use what works in the largest number of environments. Start with web development and build outwards from there. Each TV platform has its own design guidelines. Take the guidelines and focus on creating one great design that works across the overlapping 80%. Invest the time you have saved by creating only one design into making that one design fabulous. And don’t be afraid to divert from the design guidelines a little to make your design stand out from the rest.

The approach above is great for connected TVs, Android STBs and Amazon Fire device. For iOS and Roku, you can develop quickly by relying on their templates. Once you have launched on all devices, you can go back and build customized apps for iOS and Roku which will match the look and feel of your web-based apps.

 

Launching

There are two ways to launch.

Approach one: launch wide but lean. Develop lightly for as many platforms as possible as quickly as possible. The key is to learn quickly—from your growing experience with the platforms, from usage analytics, and from user responses. Then iterate just as quickly. Invest heavily where initial results show promise and reinforce there. As you gather data, you base later-stage strategy on results. Don’t spend too much money in places where it might not be spent effectively.

Approach two: do a Netflix and go all out to cover all platforms from day one. The fact that this is still a relatively immature market means that there’s still market share up for grabs. If you can move faster and stronger than the competition, you can own it. The downside is that this requires immense resources up front, to create tailored apps as well as compelling content. It’s a bigger gamble, but with a commensurately larger potential reward.

 

Summary

 Creating a true cross-device experience is hard unless, of course, you have an army of developers at your disposal. But as platforms like AppleTV, Roku, Amazon and connected TVs become more developer friendly, smaller teams can build such experiences. Since the fragmentation in the video space is here to stay, this endeavor is worth the effort.

Why OTT + Social is a winning combination for millennials

This article was originally published in Videonet.

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Although OTT TV is clearly taking off and competing with traditional cable and satellite almost everywhere around the globe, some still wonder what makes OTT the TV of tomorrow? What makes it so much better?

If you think about it, the television viewing experience hasn’t changed much since This is Your Life aired in the 50s and defined prime-time as we know it today. Why was prime-time so important? Much of it was because those were the hours for the entire family to watch TV together, which made the viewing experience so much more powerful. It took a passive individual experience (a person staring at a screen) and turned it into a social activity (people laughing together, commenting and sharing their thoughts on the show in the days after).

To understand why OTT is going to be the way millennials prefer to watch TV, we need to examine TV time’s biggest competitor for young viewers’ eyeballs – Social Networking. Companies like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter can teach us how to design a user experience that every TV service aspires to create: engaging and sticky.

It’s worth going back to some of the major social networks’ founders and seeing the principles they emphasized early in their networks’ success. For example, a young Mark Zuckerberg believed:

“The attractive component of this was probably that the base was so localized…we have so much data about what people are doing on the site and how people are using it that it just makes it so that we can really enhance the experience and target stuff towards those people in ways that no one else has really been able to do before.”

That focus on localization and data allowed for personalization, which is what has helped Facebook grow into the $350 billion company it is today.

Snapchat is one of Facebook’s biggest competitors because it dominates the teen/college students demographic: 7 out of 10 snapchat users are millennials. These are the cord-nevers/cord-shavers of tomorrow. So why do they love Snapchat so much? Here’s how Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel explained their early success:

“Now the mobile phone has really powered the idea of instant expression, which is really showing someone where you are and how you’re feeling in the moment. And this is important as it relates to identity, because really that’s one of the things that’s at the core of social media.”

One reason Snapchat has been so popular is that has allowed people to express their identity as it changes in real time.

So, personalization, identity, and real time—here we have the pillars of social networking. These are also some of the core values that will make OTT services a success.

Identity: OTT’s Big Differentiator

Let’s start with identity. Until recently, the best TV could hope for was to apply some very basic demographics to viewership. With OTT, however, identity is fundamental to the user experience. It begins at authentication. A good user experience makes this easy, perhaps even allowing users to import their online identity straight from Facebook itself. Once users log in, the provider knows who they are, what they watched, what subscription they used or one-time movie they bought.

But it needs to go further than that. A user’s OTT identity needs to feel consistent to them on all their devices. Cloud DVR is the best example of that. It’s a personalized video recording library in the cloud that allows users to enjoy their content anywhere – via mobile, the web, or through connected TVs. Similarly, users can create their own watch lists and see their viewing history.

Turning on your TV app on any device should be like looking in the mirror: you should see any shows that you are in the process of watching, some that you plan to watch next, and a few smart suggestions based on your previous behavior. At the same time, DRM and concurrency tracking are also aspects of identity in OTT, as they are crucial components required to prevent identity credentials from being stolen or shared with others.

Personalization: The Heart of User Experience

When an identity can be carried throughout the OTT experience, this makes personalization possible. Today’s viewers expect a highly personalized service, from the recommendations to even the ads themselves.

Users don’t only want to manage their own favorite lists; they want to be able compare their own viewing history to that of their friends. They expect to be able to set their own notifications so they can be informed about new content that they may enjoy as it becomes available. Their recommendations should be optimized not only based on what they’re watching, but what their social connections are watching as well.

User experience personalization should apply to business rules, as well. Users want to create their own deals, choosing whether to purchase additional services, like cloud DVR storage. They want to pay only for the content that they want to consume. They want to decide what level of viewership they want to engage at—whether free users, paying users, VIP users etc. Giving them flexibility allows them to choose the price point and viewer experience they prefer. They are even coming to expect advertising to be more targeted and relevant to them.

Real Time: Building Off the Advantages of TV

Since its early days, TV has been about live and real-time feeds. A good OTT user experience builds off that, even when offering on-demand services. A good start is incorporating real-time social feeds based off Facebook and Twitter hashtags. Again, we can go further. Users could receive real-time show reminders and notifications. When a user’s favorite show is about to begin or when a movie by their favorite director has been added to the service, notifications could be sent to users in-app or via email, depending on how they set their preferences.

Real-time reactions are even more important on the backend. Real-time analytics are key to making sure user experiences are positive. If something goes wrong for the user, it’s imperative that the service provider knows immediately so they can fix it. Today’s viewers have little patience, and are not shy about making their displeasure known!

Great User Experiences

Social networks have exploded over the past 15 years; OTT is just starting to explode now. By building off the fundamental social concepts of identity, personalization, and real time, OTT providers can develop a great user experience for their viewers, which will make the TV of tomorrow – OTT – resonate so much better with millennials.

What’s the secret to retaining fickle internet TV audiences?

This article was originally published via The Guardian Media Network.

amy-schumer-live-at-the-apollo-1024As well as the rise of comedian and actor Amy Schumer, 2015 saw the continual rise, and industry acceptance, of over-the-top (OTT) internet TV services such asNetflix and HBO NOW.

One of Schumer’s biggest achievements last year was her Live at the Apollo HBO special. In October, a few days before the show premiered on HBO and HBO NOW (the OTT subscription service that doesn’t require a pay TV subscription), my friend said she was about to sign up to HBO NOW. Her thought process was that she didn’t have a pay TV provider, but she wanted to watch the special as soon as it became available. “It’s $15 per month but you get a seven day free trial,” she said. “I can drop it whenever I want.”

I work at Kaltura, where we design online video services, so through the companies we work with we’re acutely aware of churn – customers discontinuing a service – and the problem it poses for OTT services in particular.

While churn was always an issue for service providers, OTT made it much trickier to fight. With paid TV, it takes one phone call to the call centre, convincing several different representatives that you are definitely quitting. Then you have to take the set-top box to the nearest service centre. It takes determination to go through with it. With OTT video apps, all you need to do is tap the screen and you’re free. The consumer’s dream is the service provider’s worst nightmare.

Subscribers cancelling OTT services as a percentage of the current subscriber base, in US broadband households. Illustration: Parks Associates

584A study from Parks Associates (see graphic) sums up the problem. Viewers sign up and get their fix, knowing that they can drop the service any time and subscribe again in the future when a new series or another Amy Schumer special becomes available. In order for OTT to retain its momentum in the market and offer a real alternative to cable and satellite, it must retain customers. A leaky bucket will never reach a tipping point. Today, three main strategies can reduce OTT churn.

A/B testing

The process of showing a modified version of the website to a subset of users and then comparing their behaviour to the regular version proved to be highly successful, especially for Netflix, which has embraced this method from its early days in 2005. Netflix has run more than 1,000 A/B tests with tens of millions of users. It helped the brand redesign its TV app interfaces, launch the personalised log-in pages, improve search and more. The main goal is to increase usage, which leads to increased retention and eventually lower churn.

Raising the quality of experience

Increased usage isn’t enough if the viewing experience isn’t good. Viewers today have the same level of expectations from their OTT provider as they have (or used to have) from paid TV. In a nutshell, it’s the spinning wheel moment. When you turn on a cable set-top box, you don’t ever expect to wait one to two seconds for the video to load. OTT must be on the same level. The problem is that the internet was never designed to stream HD video at scale – and things get even more complicated when it comes to 4K or live video. If a video takes two to five seconds to load, about 20% of users will drop, and after 10 seconds, around 40% will have abandoned it, found a new study (pdf) from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Akamai Technologies. It was previously hard for OTT operators to notice service issues, but today there are a number of quality of service (QoS) technologies that constantly track buffer time for every user and the video quality of every stream. If there’s reason to believe something is wrong, the operations team will get notified immediately so that they can address the issue by fixing the video file or switching to a different content delivery network. QoS may sound to some like a minor issue, but in markets with increased OTT competition, most vendors offer the same content at the same price. The main competition is on the quality of the experience.

Personalised and social marketing

Yes, those emails, phone notifications and in-app alerts that let the users know there’s a new show available. In OTT, such marketing campaigns don’t have to annoy the viewers. The service marketers should have full access to each viewer’s history so that they can send personalised alerts that will drive engagement and retention. OTT services should also embrace social networks to market to new viewers and go beyond Facebook or YouTube. Many of the young people in Generation Z today spend more of their time elsewhere like on Snapchat and Vine. Strong social marketing will be key for the growth of new OTT services.

 

DVR – the key for next generation OTT TV is in the clouds

This article was originally published in The Drum.

With the growth of OTT TV, multiple screen viewing and cord cutting catching on in the U.S., it is unsurprising that what matters in the world of video, TV and advertisers is converging.  For instance, in a recent report from June 2015, Forrester Research found that “lack of premium inventory is holding back digital video monetization.” Meanwhile eMarketer published a report about how US adults divide their TV screen time, showing that overall, video time continues to increase. While TV dipped a bit, time spent watching on connected devices more than tripled in 4 years.

So on one hand, advertisers are willing to pay 3x CPM, as their video-spending budget grows at the expense of search and display ads and on the other, viewers are craving content not just on TV, but on mobile devices.

What is the solution that can satisfy both advertisers and viewers? Cloud-DVR.

Cloud-DVR is the biggest differentiator between early OTT deployments (that mainly offer live, some VOD and limited discovery) to next-generation deployments (with advanced time-shifted TV, business model flexibility and full mobile device support). Cloud-DVR is arguably the killer-app that holds all the keys to unlocking the full potential of OTT delivery that will revolutionize our industry.

Cloud-DVR is seemingly simple – it allows end-users to record content on the cloud (instead of their set-top boxes or other hardware devices) and stream the content back on demand at any time. But Cloud DVR is anything but simple, and it has great benefits to all players in the TV consumption food chain.

Service providers can now let go of the expensive set-top boxes with their massive hard-drives, which require much investment and maintenance. Moving the storage to the cloud will allow for more storage with higher CPU for a lower price. Furthermore, service providers will be able to improve margins by offering Cloud-DVR users to pay extra for additional recording quota.

Content providers can set a new price for allowing their content to be Cloud-DVR’ed and downloaded for later viewing. In addition, with dynamic ad-insertion, VOD content can be monetized like never before.

Viewers will have the option to record an endless number of shows, watch them later on any device and also download content to view offline.

Advertisers can get access to more premium content inventory, as fresh and targeted ads can be dynamically inserted in cloud-recorded shows. Advertisers will also benefit from advanced mobile delivery that can easily ban the ability to fast-forward ads and better track engagement.

Storage Challenges are (almost) Solved

Historically, OTT vendors and operators faced challenges that impacted widespread adoption of Cloud-DVR solutions. We are now finally in a place where these hurdles are about to be overcome, including the most pressing one – storage. There are now a few approaches that help obliterate this obstacle, including having service providers record a rolling-buffer of linear channels and enable users to access their recorded shows based on queue point on that one long file. Another approach is to use a combination of core and edge storage with just-in-time transcoding, in order to reduce storage costs. In the US, where shared copies are not allowed, the leading OTT vendors experiment with storing individual copies in offline storage while streaming to users a cached (shared) copy.

Utilizing such technologies, we expect to see several tier-1 deployments offering Cloud-DVR in Europe and Asia by the Fall. Based on the potential benefits of Cloud-DVR to all aspects of the OTT food chain, 2016 will likely be an even bigger year for the industry with accelerated growth for publishers and service providers alike.

Spotify deja vu: is video killing the radio star again?

This article was originally published via The Guardian Media Network.

spotify-video adsOur world is being transformed by technology, but history, as the latest Spotify announcement shows, is destined to repeat itself.

In 1981, Viacom launched MTV. It used footage from the first moon landing and the song Video Killed the Radio Star to make it clear to the music labels and advertisers that it meant business. Before MTV, the music business (with the help of radio) was doing well. But video quickly took the industry to new heights. Fueled by the new medium, global music sales revenue quadrupled, before losing steam due to the new hip technology called the internet (and piracy).

Born in 2006, Spotify was the Swedish knight in shining armour using secret weapons like freemium and streaming to save the music industry from piracy. Last week, that knight called in the cavalry in the form of video streaming. Just like in the 80s, the music streaming business was doing OK (Spotify generated $1.3bn in revenue each year and is currently valued at $8bn), but the future was looking challenging – the company tripled its losses since 2012 and with Apple launching its own service in a few weeks – who knows when Spotify will turn a profit. For a company that is hoping to have its stock market launch soon, that’s an unbearable thought.

Spotify is trying to position its announcement as an evolution (not a revolution) of its business. Something along the lines of “music was just the beginning, now we will add TV clips and podcasts to create an entertainment platform”. One could say that Snapchat made a similar move a few months ago when it began offering video updates on top of its messaging app.

Spotify’s move, however, is quite different. Spotify is, first and foremost, a music service. Not just a distribution platform. If we know one thing about Spotify’s massive user base, it is that they love music. But interestingly, in the press event last week, where the video feature was announced – music took the back seat. When showcasing some of the new video content, Spotify chose to highlight short clips from comedy TV shows like Broad City and not music videos or interviews with artists that complement Spotify’s core offering. It seems as if in Spotify’s video realm, TV killed the radio star yet again.

The truth is that monetising music with a freemium business model is hard. Pandora, just like Spotify, is also sweating to make it work.

From a product design standpoint, there is something almost unfair in this story, since Spotify did a great job in designing a fantastic music experience: the catalogue is huge, the device support is superb, the playlists are great for sharing, the play queue is a cool tool for occasional DJing, the user profiles are what social discovery is all about and the recent announcement of Spotify Running makes perfect sense. And let’s not forget the best part – much of this is available for free.

But all of that wasn’t enough and so Spotify had to change focus and expand its content offering.

Maybe last week’s press event doesn’t mean that much and music fans have nothing to worry about. Maybe Spotify, just like MTV in the 80s, will take content streaming business to new heights with the introduction of video. Maybe Spotify, like MTV in its heyday, will be as innovative with TV clips as it was with the music streaming experience. Maybe it will even challenge YouTube’s viewing experience that hasn’t changed much over the years. But those are all big maybes.

One thing is clear – Spotify must make TV clips work with music. One will not work without the other. Just look at what happened to MTV once it lost all interest in music and its core fan base to focus solely on reality TV – it’s dying.

With millions of music fans who love Spotify and are looking forward to a bright new age for the industry, one can only hope that Spotify knows what it’s doing and that history will not come full circle.

Sling TV: the killer cord-cutting platform?

 

This article was originally published via The Guardian Media Network.

Every now asling tvnd then new services are introduced and make us change our behaviours so quickly that we almost forget that things were ever different. It’s those “did we really” moments that you have when trying to recall life before that service or product appeared. For example, did we really used to buy a whole CD just to get access to a single song? Did we really spend a fortune on DVDs only to watch them once or twice? Did we really agree to pay for hundreds of TV channels, only to watch the 10 we really care about? Oh, wait. We still do.

But the new age is already here in some shape or form. It’s called Sling TV – an over-the-top (OTT) TV service introduced by US satellite provider Dish that lets US users stream 12 live channels on multiple devices for $20 a month. This may not sound that groundbreaking. It may even sound like a bad deal. But almost a month after its launch, it’s safe to say that Sling TV is an important milestone for Americans who yearn for days when live TV will be as easy and cheap to consume as Netflix and Spotify.

Here’s why Sling TV is a milestone in this new era of TV experiences.

ESPN has left the box

The most significant draw of Sling is its sports channels: ESPN and ESPN2 (more sport channels are expected to be made available for an extra $5). Live sports were always the missing piece from any TV service that isn’t cable, as there have been no bargains, no easy shortcuts (read: not easy to pirate). However, Sling TV users can finally get access to live sports for cheap and they also get some control. For example, the local ESPN channels will usually only carry the games of the local team. But what if I’m a San Francisco 49ers fan living in NYC? There’s also the issue of blackouts in local markets. Sling TV could potentially help with both. Making sports more user- and budget-friendly is key to the future of OTT TV.

Disney is an agent of change

Since content is the most important piece in TV services, the Hollywood studios can determine the success or failure of any new service. Disney, which owns ESPN, the Disney channels and ABC, made four of its channels available on Sling TV. It also offers shortform content from Maker Studios, a network of YouTube creators that it acquired last year. If you add this to Disney’s apparent plans to offer a streaming service based on Marvel superheroes and a series of web shortsbased on Star Wars, we are seeing a Hollywood giant making very bold moves in the digital space.

Re-educating consumers

Dish is going after the 18-34 demographic that is moving away from traditional live paid TV. Some say this trend is happening at a stunning rate. According toDisney CEO, Bob Iger: “Dish’s Sling TV is designed to reach an estimated 12m households that subscribe to broadband, but not pay TV … We believe it’s a worthwhile experiment [to] try to convince younger people to sign up to cable when they either wouldn’t have signed up for it at all or might have waited.” In other words, Dish is trying to re-educate young viewers that there is a price point in which paying for TV can make sense, just like Netflix and Spotify make sense.

Re-educating device manufactures

TV devices are everywhere but they don’t seem to make our lives that much easier.

AppleTV is iOS only. Amazon is for Amazon customers. Chromecast has limited capabilities. The Google Nexus TV is tightly integrated with Google Play. Sony PlayStation has its own streaming service too. Wouldn’t it be great to have a piece of hardware that serves the consumer and not the manufacture’s eco-system? Sling TV takes a wide approach, just like Netflix, making it available on all these devices along with native iOS and Android apps. This is how TV in the 21st century should work.

What’s missing?

As promising as it is, Sling TV still has a way to go, especially when it comes to time shifted capabilities like rewinding live events and cloud DVR. This is where Dish could have captured the full essence of millennial TV viewers, but that would compete too much with its existing satellite service (and would compromise the entire industry’s business model). However, this is a feature that can easily be added later. When this will happen, we will find ourselves wondering “did we really not have cloud DVR on our internet TV service”?

When that day comes, our TV world will be a very different place.

Iddo Shai is director of product marketing at Kaltura. You can find him on Twitter@iddopop.