BT Vision throws Microsoft Mediaroom under a bus for Linux

Set-top box software to be torn out and replaced over the net

UK hybrid TV service BT Vision plans to be the first customer to discard Microsoft's Mediaroom software, almost imminently, after at least a year-long effort to put in completely new software building blocks to rejuvenate the service.

BT controversially refused to launch a fully-fledged IPTV service when it finally got Vision out of the door in 2006, instead insisting that competing with a free-to-air digital terrestrial Freeview system, based on DVB-T, was pointless, and offered instead a system which merely used IPTV for the VoD delivery and also accepted the Freeview DVB-T linear broadcasts.

The BT Vision launch relied on consumer research from the 1990s when BT wanted to introduce a movies-only VoD system, but was initially prevented due to its communications dominance at the time. So as the rest of Europe introduced full multicast IPTV, BT went ahead with this hybrid, but bizarrely chose Mediaroom set-top boxes and software, whose real strength was in multicast. Later it began using the MPX content management system from ThePlatform, a US subsidiary of Comcast, but retained the Mediaroom set tops.

Goodbye Windows, hello Linux

Now BT plans an ambitious over-the-internet upgrade to over half a million customers, with Windows CE being replaced by a Linux variant, and a browser and middleware stack being provided by UK software house Oregan Networks - plus and a new cataloguing system and user-interface from Australian TV software biz, Massive Interactive, who provided much the same for Telstra's Big Pond service.

We can see the BT offering becoming far lighter in terms of software licence costs here (almost none), in what looks like a preparation for a much broader installation for an OTT war. Insiders have told Faultline that BT didn't go all the way to an HTML 5.0 client, as the work began too long ago, but the client apps are written by BT itself.

What caused the biggest problem was the continuation of Microsoft DRM in the system, with Pace (the set-top box provider for the current generation of BT Vision DVRs) having to integrate Nagravision for the paid services on Freeview, such as Sky Sports, alongside Microsoft Windows Media DRM, and drop it all onto Linux. The system will slowly upgrade to using Microsoft Playready DRM in time but the pay TV portion will still need Nagra.

The problem at the heart of the decision has been the way the BT service is very VoD focused, but the proprietary and unvarying UI of the Mediaroom implementation has meant that only a handful of VoD options can be shown at any given time, when BT has amassed 6,000 VoD options.

Raking through what you've watched, when you've watched it

The answer is to introduce a brand new recommendation system which will offer different VoD options to each subscriber based on past viewing habits. This will be based on software from The Filter, another UK company that has music legend, Peter Gabriel, among others, as an investor and adviser.

Gabriel first came to light in technology when he built up OD2 (On Demand Distribution), which was sold to Loudeye in the US. The system went on to the be music platform for Ovi, when Nokia bought the European end of Loudeye for $60 million in 2006.

It is probably down to Gabriel and his Nokia connections that The Filter won what is probably its biggest previous contract, on Nokia Gig finder, a system which uses cellular location data to find nearby pop concerts. The Filter system is supposed to be able to take into account even more dimensions than some of the more popular recommendation systems available for TV today, including user activity at a particular time of day, on a particular day of the week, on a particular platform in a particular location, in a particular language.

Money talks

In its financial results recently BT said that it was becoming even more dominant in the UK broadband market, picking up 64 per cent of new retail DSL installs, taking it to 5.7 million retail customers and adding 144,000 BT Infinity customers in the quarter, which use fibre. It now has 575,000 BT Vision customers and is third in pay TV in the UK behind Sky and Virgin.

BT said that TV is a growth area which will benefit from the rollout of super-fast broadband like BT Infinity, so it may up the ante in HD and further HD linear channels over its Infinity lines. BT also said it was investing in more content and improving the UI for BT Vision. It will use its involvement in YouView, if it is ever launched, to push the new services.

With the dominant market share for broadband it makes sense that BT will continue to offer a bundled triple play of voice, broadband and TV and back this up with delivery over its own Wi-Fi network. We already know that gaming will be added to this offer on the back of its shareholding in OnLive, the cloud gaming system, which it already markets with broadband lines.

The move away from Microsoft Mediaroom shows up weaknesses in the Mediaroom strategy, which has failed to attract a wide range of app developers to work alongside it, targeting IPTV multicast services among its millions of subscribers at 20-plus accounts: AT&T, Deutsche Telekom and Swisscom are among the larger operators which rely on Mediaroom.

Mediaroom first came to light in 2004 when it swept the honours of major tier-1 telcos who said they would use it for IPTV delivery, and most of these have been extremely successful. However the lack of flexibility of the system, the low choice in set-top boxes and the extensive D-Servers required to make the system work, with its awkward rapid channel change system, have continued to leave question marks over the offering.

As we enter a generation of OTT services, Microsoft may benefit from its IIS streaming capabilities, but Mediaroom may be harder pressed to open its system to the rapid innovation needed in OTT services.

For a copy of the executive summary of the Rethink report on OTT services, where all these systems are listed and forecast in detail, click here.

Copyright © 2012, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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