NORDIJA INSIGHTS · APRIL 2021


The Battle of the First Screen Operating System

Mads Vium Asbjørn | 7 April 2021

In the old days, things were simpler

There were TVs and STBs with a basic embedded operating system that, in broad terms, didn’t give many other features than watching flow TV through multicast and recordings. Easy and convenient, but not very flexible, and no way to provide extra services or benefits to the consumer. Over time, many attempts were made to create a fully-fledged operating system for Smart TVs and STBs to deal with those limitations, and just as many of them have failed.

Things are changing - rapidly

A few of the operating systems have survived in some form or the other. Where a TV set previously could last for many years, even decades, SmartTVs and STBs are nowadays regarded more as consumer electronic devices that are replaced at a much more regular interval just like your mobile phone. Furthermore, with the high penetration of fiber and the new upcoming high-speed satellite Internet connections, and the fact that hardware is getting better and cheaper, Silicon Valley and the Big Tech industry have finally realized that they need to be a part of this game as well: And who can blame them - of course, they want to have a piece of the huge profitable market of dynamic ad insertion and consumer profiling.

The big players 

Who is on the pathway of taking a big part of the OS market for SmartTV’s, dongles, and STBs? Today, the trend is turning towards some of the big Tech Silicon Valley companies like Google with Android TV (Chromecast Google TV and Android Operator Tier), Apple with TvOS, Roku with Roku TV, and Amazon with Android Fire OS. Besides that, some of the high-tech industrial conglomerates, especially the big TV manufacturers, are into the game as well like Samsung with Tizen OS and LG with their WebOS. In this paper, I’ll cover Android TV, TvOS, Tizen, and WebOS.

Operating systems:

So, what makes up a modern operating system for First Screen devices, like Smart TVs and STBs? In my opinion, it must include at least the following features:

Support for third-party apps:

Give the end-user access to third-party apps and have an app store feature that allows the consumer to install a particular service, game, or app. It must have an open SDK for third-party developers and an easy and streamlined but thorough deployment and update process. But that’s not enough - a developer ecosystem, aka a digital ecosystem, should be in place, to enhance the value of the operating system.

Smart assistants:

Support for “Smart Assistants,” which includes voice control, preferable with either Google Assistant, Siri, or Alexa. This support for Smart Assistants also provides support for smart homes and integration of internet-of-things and even recommendations.

Metadata ingestion and data aggregation on the home screen:

It must be able to handle end-users that subscribe to multiple streaming apps/services from many different providers. It must have functionality so that the operating systems UI can aggregate content from them all, allowing recommendation and channels to be presented in a unified and similar way and thereby making it easy for the end-user to find the content they want or continue from where they were watching. This also requires the OS to support deep linking so that content can be opened in the relevant apps.

Universal search:

To ease the experience, it must support a single entry to do searches among all apps and all content on the device. This is tightly coupled to the metadata ingestion and usually requires that the third-party app integrates towards a search API. With all the content that is available today, this is one of the most important features.

Casting support:

And finally, allow the user to send content from their multiscreen device to the SmartTV or STB platforms without any hassle or issues.

 

This overview shows what the four different platforms are capable of today:


* Does not provide a full list or overview of the content on the devices

** Only mirroring or very limited third-party app support

*** Only supported in beta

None of the above-mentioned operating systems are similar, and they all provide different capabilities and features, but overall they all share some common characteristics. Below is a slightly more detailed description of what they support and the differences:

Google with Android TV (Chromecast Google TV and Operator tier)

Google has currently two options for their operating system Android TV:

  • Operator tier with a custom operator branded launcher
  • Standalone apps are running on the standard Chromecast Google TV launcher.
Operator tier

The operator tier program allows the UI to be branded very specifically towards an operator but still be part of the Android TV ecosystem and third-party apps. This gives the operator the best of two worlds - all the new features and benefits of Android and keeping the branding and control on the operator’s hand. There are different levels of this program - either the operator can use the standard Google launcher, but with specific elements changed, like colors, texts, recommendations, etc., or the operator can change the launcher completely and develop their own with very specific branding and ownership over their own product. Combined with metadata ingestion, search (including voice search and smart assistants) and channels can be integrated directly into the custom launcher. This is a very powerful alternative to the old legacy Linux boxes.

Google Chromecast TV

With Google Chromecast TV, Google provides the UI and launcher but allows standalone apps to be installed. A standalone application is not quite as flexible but is easier and quicker to release and can still provide the service. With metadata ingestion for search and channels, many of the operators’ features can be part of the Google UI.

Since it runs on Android and uses the same APIs, it has a huge developer ecosystem giving them a big advantage in regards to available third-party apps.

Apple with TvOS for Apple TV

The name ’’Apple TV'' is used by different products, so it can be confusing. Apple TV is a media player that runs the operating system “TvOS” and Apple TV+ is a streaming service. With the Apple TV app, you can watch a selection of movies and series in one place. 

In this context, we are referring to TvOS and the Apple TV App.

TvOS does not allow a complete replacement of the home screen UI by the operator, but it does support third-party applications and very comprehensive metadata ingestion and deep linking structure, allowing seamless integration between the operating systems home screen and the third-party applications. 

Apple TV also has the benefit of having a large developer ecosystem since it shares the SDK with iOS used for iPhones and iPads.

Tizen and WebOS

 

Tizen and WebOS are Samsungs and LG’s take on a SmartTV platform and is also used on smartphones, tablets, watches, and other wearable devices.

It is, de-facto, the operating system on all new Samsung and LG TVs, which makes the market share of these platforms very high, and therefore very relevant. 

Both support third-party applications, just like TvOS, and a metadata ingestion framework, though not as fine-grained as on Android and TvOS.

Unfortunately, the developer ecosystem is not as mature and large as the two other OSs, but the big players and streaming services are there.

How can fokusOn enable Smart TV features to an older legacy STB?

Nordija allows a wide variety of old Linux STBs to be converted into a “Smart TV Operating System” with almost the same capabilities as a new SmartTV or STB.

Apps and app store:
  • Since fokusOn runs on both Android TV and TvOS (and Tizen and WebOS in the lab), regular third-party apps and their associated app stores are supported out-of-the-box on these platforms. For older Linux boxes, fokusOn supports a micro-frontend (widgets) concept that allows the operator to deploy small independent applications that can be deployed to the end-users device. This, of course, does not include an “app store” concept for Linux boxes though, but it does allow the operator to build and deploy their own small apps and deploy them to specific users or user groups
Smart Assistant:
  • If fokusOn runs on one of the above-mentioned SmartTV/STB platforms, Smart-Assistants comes built-in to the OS and is automatically supported - however, on pure Linux platforms, these are usually not supported due to the missing hardware capabilities.
Metadata ingestion and data aggregation on the home screen:
  • This is supported by the fokusOn's unified content model and allows the operator to ingest metadata from various sources and display them then the fokusOn UI in a uniform and aggregated manner and allows the end-user to do searches across different sources.
Universal search:
  • Using the ingested metadata, fokusOn can support universal search and provide a one-entry search mechanism across all content on the device, using the new “Universal Search” feature of fokusOn.
Built-in Casting:
  • Besides supporting Chromecast and AirPlay (if the operating system supports it), fokusOn supports XMPP casting, which can turn an old Linux box into a fully-fledged streaming device combined with the fokusOn multiscreen apps.
Customized UI:
  • The widget concept, and the fact that fokusOn runs on HTML5 web engines, make it easy to add a fully customizable UI and tailor it to the operator’s brand.

What should the operator do?

The operator must be where the end-user is. Instead of fighting it, embrace the new operating systems and their ecosystems. Provide apps to the consumers on whatever operating system he/she is using. Make sure to have a presence on the relevant App Stores - make it easy and convenient for the end-user to use the streaming services by making it available from everywhere.

Also, make sure to integrate your metadata towards their metadata aggregation APIs so that the search results and recommendations from the operator will be available. 

And finally, assure that your old Linux legacy box is up-to-date with the latest features and trends and can work with some of the new features available on the new First Screen operating systems. If you have a large set of old Linux STB’s that need some of these new Smart TV features, try the fokusOn platform, which can bring some of these features to your old legacy hardware.

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