As the media industry gears up for another long weekend of back-to-back trade meetings at Amsterdam's IBC, a number of vendors have held analyst pre-briefings, perhaps recognising the challenge of finding time and any space, never mind a quiet space, to discuss things during the show itself.
Last week Netgem, the France-based IPTV set-top box developer, introduced its key theme for this year’s event, and managed to put yet another gloss on the buzzword of the moment, the ubiquitous “cloud”. I thought we had heard most of the possible explanations for what this cloud thing really is, and they have all revolved around some element of online access to remote servers in datacenters. The “cloud” is, very loosely, anything “out there”, ie remote from the individual user and his devices.
Netgem has now taken the concept a step further by bringing the cloud home. Instead of users storing content and accessing services and apps on servers in some distant, unknown location, Netgem proposes that network operators deploy home media servers as the “central points of the cloud”.
Netgem’s solution, nCloud, incorporates three key elements: the home media server, a software platform, and social TV applications.The nCloud media server takes a modular approach and could, depending on operator requirements, incorporate a Blu-ray Disc Live player, video conferencing devices (camera, microphone), NAS (network-attached storage), networked games and the access modem/gateway. The software platform comprises content from live television broadcasts, on-demand sources and personal content libraries.
Connected devices, including smartphones, tablets and PCs, would access content and apps, whatever the source, via the home media server, meaning that there is no need for the network operator to budget for datacenters. I was able to use an iPad to watch live broadcast TV received by the nCloud home media server and streamed directly to the tablet. Netgem calculates that operators will save money over time by deploying more advanced media server boxes in homes instead of moving their systems towards the “cloud” model.
Netgem admits that the media server will require a “big chip”, but estimates that the media server might be deployed at a premium of only 20% compared to an existing set-top box. Netgem works with both Broadcom and Intel, although it accepts that some service provider customers are still not confident with the Intel solution.
The whole thin v. thick, client v. server debate has energised the IT industry for as long as anyone can remember. It’s now enveloping the television and media segments, and there’s no question that service providers are seriously considering the long-term feasibility of “cloud” or server approaches replacing their traditional home-installed hardware-based models.
The widespread availability of fast, reliable broadband connections and connected devices is the catalyst for this potential living room revolution. But just because content can be stored anywhere doesn’t mean it necessarily should be. For a start it’s an issue of great concern to content owners themselves (and their lawyers). Content business models have been built for many years (without much reason for question or debate) on exactly where a particular “piece of content” is stored and who can “access” it. Those business models are being disrupted by concepts like cloud and connected devices.
There is also a shift in the economic debate for operators: they have wrestled for a decade or more with the relative viability or otherwise of “VOD” (ie television and movies in the cloud...) and DVRs (ie television stored in the home). In terms of market penetration, usage and media consumption impact there is no question that DVRs have had the greater impact to date.
Netgem’s home-cloud approach reignites the debate about the role of the set-top box as a key component in the connected home. In the end operators will make decisions based on their own economics as to whether a “thick client” has any role in the world of cloud content and services. Those decisions are likely to vary based on individual circumstances and local market environments but we see no sign yet of any overriding trend in one direction or another.
However the future of content storage and access pans out, Netgem’s move makes the whole cloud debate just a little but more, er, cloudy.
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