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Building Connected TV Apps

Roux Joubert

Head of TV&Mobile

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I'm Roux Joubert, Head of the TV & Mobile Platforms team based in the BBC's new offices in MediaCityUK, Salford.

I am privileged to lead an amazing team responsible for building some cutting edge and award winning products, who brought you the BBC iPlayer on TV and mobile, as well as News, Sport and Red Button on emerging TV and mobile platforms.

Today the BBC iPlayer, News and Sport apps are available on an astonishing 650 connected TV devices, from internet-enabled or Smart TVs and set-top-boxes to media players and games consoles, delivering more than 45 million videos to 2 million users every month. Most recently, the BBC Sport app has been used by more than 200,000 users a day to watch the phenomenal London 2012 Olympic Games coverage on connected TVs alone, having only launched a few short weeks before.

While this is a remarkable achievement in itself, it certainly wasn't easy or straightforward, and I would like to share with you what challenges we have encountered, what we have learnt in the process of solving them and what we believe is important to consider for anyone looking at building applications for connected TVs.

The Challenge of Massive Fragmentation

From the moment BBC iPlayer first appeared on a TV for Virgin cable users back in 2008, it was clear that deploying the BBC apps on connected TVs wasn't going to be simple. It has actually been a tremendous challenge to build multiple applications, in different presentation technologies, with little or no standardisation, and across such a wide range of devices.

Some have TV tuners, some don't. Some work with remote controls, others with pointers or even voice and gesture controls. Some run HTML 3 and CSS 1, others HTML 5 and CSS 3, still others FlashLite 3.1 or Adobe AIR 3.0. Every device seems to have its own way of playing back video, and many devices have memory constraints we haven't seen on a PC or mobile phone for years, with some having to cope with as little as 1MB!

We're delighted when our audience doesn't even notice the hoops we've jumped through to deliver a graceful experience across so many devices, but the engineers among us know what a mammoth task this has been.

A big part of the challenge is perhaps surprisingly due to the emergence of browsers on connected TVs. Earlier versions of the BBC iPlayer were built in Adobe Flash or MHEG-IC (MHEG-5 is an ISO and ETSI ratified interactive TV standard used in the UK). But over the last two years, the vast majority of devices we have seen have shifted to using HTML and JavaScript (W3C standards), bringing browsers to the TV.

Now, while W3C standards include generally well understood technologies like HTML, JavaScript and CSS, building for a browser was initially the most difficult platform to engineer at scale. The problem is this: Flash and MHEG are either proprietary (the former) or a well-defined and mature industry standard (the latter), which should make it relatively simple to build an app once and deploy it to many devices. The HTML landscape, however, consists of a variety of standards rather than a single one, with many of those standards in varying stages of development. Two device manufacturers have yet to build their browsers and HTML support in quite the same way. For those familiar with building websites, imagine building a site that needs to support hundreds of different browsers, not the three or four we're used to on desktop sites today.

Scalable Architectures

The way to tackle this challenge is by approaching it from two sides: firstly by having a defined and accepted industry standard for browsers on TVs, and secondly by implementing a scalable architecture to simplify app development and deployment across the many different devices.

The first problem is that there is no widely adopted industry standard for browsers on connected TVs today. Most manufacturers do not follow any particular standard, although there are a few contenders for a new standard that are promising, such as the DBook 7 and HbbTV. The emerging DBook 7 specification - published by the Digital Television Group (DTG) - is aimed at the UK market and supports the BBC interactive technologies used in Red Button. HbbTV is backed primarily by European broadcasters and is starting to get some good traction in the industry. The BBC will continue to feed into these specifications and provide compliant applications to help make the case for greater alignment and adoption of standards.

But it can take a long time for a standard to be fully adopted. In the meantime, hundreds of new devices flood the market every year, and we want to make sure that BBC applications are available on as many of these as possible. The solution lies in decoupling the applications from the underlying device complexities.

The TV Application Layer (TAL)

This is done by creating an abstraction layer between the applications (iPlayer, News and Sport), and the devices they are intended for (consoles, TVs, media players). This abstraction layer, which we call the TV Application Layer (or TAL), takes care of all differences between devices, such as remote control key-mapping, media player interfaces, performance, networking and storage.

This means application developers do not have to be aware of all the specifics and idiosyncrasies of each device, and can build to a common, well defined interface, safe in the knowledge that all the devices supported by that version of the TAL will be easily addressable. Likewise, when a manufacturer adds a new device to the list of BBC certified devices, all the BBC applications will become available without having to write new versions of each app.

This approach was validated again most recently when the BBC Sport application first made its appearance on a number of devices in time for the London 2012 Olympic Games, but using only a single application, integrated with the TAL. This proved that we had found an elegant solution to a very tough challenge, and one which we believe is the only way application development on connected TVs can be done at scale for the foreseeable future.

Better Standards and More Content

We hope to make our TV Application Layer available to content providers and manufacturers in the near future, and in the process help stimulate the market for connected TV applications at a time when its full potential is only beginning to be realised. In the meantime we are continuing to develop and use the TAL internally to improve the way we build apps and deploy them onto platforms, and working closely with manufacturers to improve our tools and processes.

But creating new abstraction layers to get around device fragmentation and lack of standards can only be a short term solution. To achieve real scale for TV-based applications, manufacturers need to adopt a common standard for TVs based on HTML, JavaScript and CSS, and content providers need to get familiar with the challenges of building apps on TVs and, to give the manufacturers more incentive to solve this problem. The BBC will continue to play a major role in helping to define the direction the industry is taking, as well as providing valuable insight into what makes for a good TV-based experience.

Simply Building Apps

We started off a few years ago thinking it would be easy to build apps for connected TV. We quickly realised that it wasn't, but also that we had an opportunity to make it a lot simpler for ourselves and the rest of the world to do so, while also helping the industry understand what content providers want. I believe we are making great strides in achieving both. So, the next time you watch BBC programmes on a games console, smart TV, set-top-box or media player, whether it be through BBC iPlayer, News, Sport or future Red Button services, spare a thought for the work of the BBC's TV application teams.

We've faced these challenges and made it possible for you to enjoy the BBC's fantastic programmes on your sofa in the living room on whatever device you choose, and hopefully on even more devices in the future.

I hope to build on this topic as we deploy our products onto more platforms, but in the meantime I'd be very interested in your comments on how we have built the BBC's connected TV apps. Let me know what you think.

Roux Joubert is Head of TV & Mobile Platforms, Programmes and On Demand, BBC Future Media

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