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War Of The Screens

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Click! Shoot! Upload! Share! No, we are not talking about a smartphone here. We are talking of the just launched Android-based compact camera from Samsung. It is the world’s first truly connected camera with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a 3G SIM slot, and is also hooked to the entire Google suite, including Maps.

The only thing it cannot do, for now, is make voice calls. Who knows, the next version might allow you to do that as well.

For years, the tech world has talked about convergence — of one omnipotent device that will be used by people to consume all their media — at work, at home and at play. This device was supposed to make all our current devices obsolete. But now, the fog has lifted and a very different picture is emerging.

On the surface, what is playing out appears to be not convergence, but divergence. Today, it is not about one screen or another, but about four or five or even six screens that all talk to each other, and across which we migrate our work and entertainment seamlessly.

So you have phones, tablets, PCs, and Smart TVs, all connected to, and in sync with, each other. Besides, device makers are bombarding us with hybrids (or convertibles) — a tablet that becomes a laptop or a PC screen that turns into to a TV. Some players like Sony and Samsung talk about a multi-screen strategy that includes the camera or the PlayStation.

Actually, the old idea of convergence is already a reality in some senses because all devices today can perform multiple activities. You can watch live television on your PC, you can access Facebook on your Smart TV, which incidentally can take pictures and videos. You can review documents and watch videos on your smartphone or tablet. And you can participate in a  video conference using almost all of these devices.



But just because all devices are capable of multiple functions does not mean that people are using any one device alone — instead, most of us are using all of them, and for various functions. Many studies have shown that most people today are simultaneously working on three devices — watching TV, tweeting about it with a smartphone, even as the laptop or tablet is on. Technology has rewired our brains to multi-task on many devices at once.

This multi-device usage behaviour has triggered a frenzied bout of re-strategising among companies. It has also blurred distinctions between traditionally separate markets and is forcing players from one market to compete for the same set of customers with companies from another market. Almost every gadget maker and software developer — be it a Samsung, Sony, Lenovo, Apple, Google, Microsoft or Adobe has a multi-screen strategy group to make sure that the company stays relevant, no matter how the market or the customer usage pattern evolves. Ditto with chip makers. And it’s not just the tech companies — literally every customer-facing company is talking about having to rejig the way it does business to factor in this phenomenon. Ajay Kaul, executive director, global brand communications, Lenovo, explains, “The convergence, consumerisation and mobilisation of technology mean a four-screen offering is an absolute must.”



This is why PC giant Lenovo has launched smartphones phones, tablets and smart TVs. Its smart TV runs on a Qualcomm processor and Google’s Android 4.0 operating system. In addition, Lenovo has unleashed convertibles or all-in-ones that, at the touch of a button, convert from a PC to a TV, and hybrids (tablets that can become notebooks). “The new devices emerging on the scene offer different experiences and applications, but all share the ‘heart’ of a PC,” points out Kaul.

That is why other PC makers such as Dell, HP and Asus are scrambling to get into smartphones, tablets or convertibles. The threat to PC makers is not from other PC makers, but from phone companies. For TV companies, the threat could be from tablet makers.

The fact that HP, which exited the tablet and smartphone race last year (withdrawing its Palm webOS devices) has decided to re-enter the field shows which way the wind is blowing. CEO Meg Whitman who reversed her predecessor’s decision says, “We have to ultimately offer a smartphone because in many countries that is your first computing device.”

 
TEARING DOWN THE WALLS FOR EASY ACCESS 
Apple, which led device convergence with groundbreaking applications on the smartphone and tablet and the way users could access iOS as well as Macbook’s OSX simultaneously, has had a ‘walled garden’ approach, where access is controlled. This made device convergence accessible only to those who had multiple Apple products. But thanks to open platforms such as Android, the walled garden is breaking down, making device convergence accessible to all. This trend is being seen across devices. Recently, Sony, which had a walled garden approach to gaming with its PlayStation series, said the closed platform approach will end soon. Its acquisition of cloud gaming player Gaikai and announcement of a free-to-play console Dust 514 is a step in that direction. In TV, according to Adobe’s Umang Bedi, digital direct broadcast TV may be choosing a walled garden approach, but once 4G sets in, this will be broken and will lead to an explosion of video content across screens. During the 2012 London Olympics, BBC used Adobe’s Project Primetime to deliver live streaming and video-on-demand of the games across the web and devices — desktops, smartphones, tablets and Internet-connected TVs.

 
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Forget global players. Even small Indian challengers such as Micromax are rushing to cover all screens, as are companies such as Videocon. While phone maker Micromax has launched tablets, TVs and a dongle (Smart Stick) that can convert the television into a smart TV, Videocon which is a TV company has got into mobile phones. “We realise that there are six screens in a consumer’s life today and we are already in three screens,” says Rajesh Agarwal, managing director and co-founder of Micromax.

Nokia, which has so far stuck to just mobile devices, insisting that mobility is the future, acknowledges the changed environment. Vipul Mehrotra, director of smart devices at Nokia India says, “The industry has evolved from a battle of devices to a war of ecosystems. Players with a stake in the ecosystem and true differentiation will lead in the future.”

And that, in sum, is what is happening now — it is a war of ecosystems. And the warriors are not just the device makers, but the software firms and chip makers who are ever so often changing their strategy to try and win the war being played out on a fluid battlefield.

Changing DNA
Almost all the backroom warriors — be it Adobe, Microsoft, HCL Technologies, Intel or AMD — have revisited their business models to fit in a mobility offering or a smart TV offering. An example is the recent launch of Windows 8, which many believe is a game-changing innovation from Microsoft. “It is truly capable of being demonstrated on all devices — small, big and medium,” says Sanket Akerkar, managing director, Microsoft India. “We have created a singular experience for developers to be able to write apps that work on all screens.” According to Akerkar, many of Microsoft’s suite of services — be it Xbox or Outlook — will seamlessly perform across devices, filling in a key piece of the jigsaw that was missing in the convergence action.
 
NARESH NAGARAJAN Senior vice-president, enterprise transformation services, HCL Tech “EIGHTY PER CENT OF BUSINESSES FEEL THIS TREND IS A THREAT TO THEM.”
Adobe, too, has reconfigured its offerings to be in tune with all devices. Adobe South Asia’s managing director Umang Bedi gives a live example from Delhi to show how the company is orchestrating a user’s multi-device behaviour. At a mall, a fashion designer notices a dress that inspires his creative instincts. He whips out his tablet and clicks its picture. On his way back home, he uses the Adobe Photoshop Touch app on the tablet to re-pattern the dress. Once he has finished re-imagining it, he puts it on Adobe Collage. On reaching his studio, he syncs the image on to his Mac, where he modifies the dress further, creating a 3D animated video which he posts on the Adobe Creative Cloud. Now, he can access his new creation from any device — be it a phone, smart TV, PC or tablet — to be showcased to a buyer.

Today, every player with a stake in the screen wars is jumping in — including those who are not traditionally in the hardware business. Amazon (with its Kindle devices) and Google (mobile OS) are trying to direct the flow to make sure the convergence traffic goes their way.

Simultaneously, millions of app developers, social media biggies such as Facebook and Twitter, audio companies such as Dolby and the monetisers of our screen behaviour — the advertising networks — are pitching in to mark their presence across all screens. Preetesh Chouhan, vice-president, Apac, Vdopia Media and Software Solutions, a video advertising network, says, “We work on a philosophy of videos everywhere and videos across four screens are definitely happening; so we have to be present in all.” He goes on to describe how he has synced his Samsung S3 to his Smart TV at home.

The game is changing so fast that boundaries are blurring. In recent times, the clear divide between hardware and software companies has disappeared to a large extent. As Krishnan Chatterjee, vice-president, strategic marketing, HCL Technologies, says, “Today, you do not know if Apple is a retailer or a media company or a hardware company. Or whether Microsoft, with Skype and the Surface tablet, is a telecom company or a software firm.”

Apple was the first to bridge the divide. The Google Nexus devices have brought the search company into a direct confrontation with Apple. Now Microsoft too has launched its Surface tablet. So where do we go from here? In maps for example, both Google and Apple are battling to capture the location-based services market.

Naresh Nagarajan, senior vice-president of enterprise transformation services at HCL Technologies, points out how today’s multi-device behaviour has serious implications for businesses as well. He says that every customer-facing enterprise will have to change its way of doing business to meet customer expectations.

As Nagarajan points out, if you are a travel company dealing with customers, you need to re-engineer your offering in such a way that a customer could start a booking process on his laptop and complete it on a mobile phone, and be able to start where he left off on one device. Today, this is not happening yet, although many companies — banks and travel firms — are working on it as are companies with cloud offerings such as iCloud or Google Drive.

And this spells out a whole new business opportunity for software services companies, which are offering exactly these solutions to bankers and travel firms. “About 80 per cent of businesses feel this is a threat to them and want to know how they can convert it into an opportunity. We are getting a lot of requests for solutions from companies in industries that are B2C-centric — banking, travel, e-commerce,” he says.

Different Models
Given that everybody has a multi-device strategy, how are they differentiating their offerings? Every gadget company is creating an ecosystem. Apple set the trend with its walled garden approach where the customer is held captive in the iOS ecosystem, but those on open platforms too are betting on driving their strategy through an ecosystem. The gadget ecosystem is emerging as a battle of operating systems (OS).

Currently, three contenders — Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows 8 — are wooing device makers. While the iOS remains restricted to Apple devices, Android has made its presence felt across devices and companies, including the likes of Samsung, Dell, LG, Sony HTC and Toshiba.

The newest entrant to the mobile OS market, Windows 8, has been adopted by Samsung, Nokia, Dell and HTC. Clearly, the OSs are wooing more and more device companies to adopt their version. And device companies are opting to spread their risks by being present across multiple OSs.
 
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Game Of Devices  
Every device maker thinks it has hit upon a winning strategy. “We are best placed for convergence,” declares Sunil Nayar, general manager, sales, Sony India, shrugging aside the current hit the electronics giant has been taking globally on its television business and its slow take-off in the mobile devices business.

Nayar describes how this April, the Japanese company set in motion its ‘One Sony’ strategy. Under this, all businesses — television, mobile, gaming, imaging, entertainment, music — would work in sync with each other.

 “One fine day, not too long in the future, when you own a Bravia TV, an Xperia phone or tablet, a Vaio laptop or a PlayStation, you will be able to get exclusive previews of Sony Music records or Sony Pix movies or clips from our various TV channels around the globe,” says Nayar. “Already we have services like Music Unlimited and Movies Unlimited available in the US and Europe and our goal is to get that to India too,” he says.

On smartphones, where Sony had fallen behind, Nayar insists the company is coming back with renewed vigour. “Now that we have delinked with Ericsson, we will be able to express ourselves to our full potential. A recent development has been that Sony Mobile Corporation has got integrated with Sony India, so you will now see the One Sony approach here too,” he says, hinting at a blockbuster launch from Xperia soon.

Korean chaebol Samsung, which appears to be powering ahead in the device innovation sweepstakes, is making all its screens talk to each other. Rahul Saigal, chief marketing officer, Samsung India, says Samsung has been working on mirroring solutions from mobile to TV, content-sharing between devices, dual screen mode (each screen performs a different function, for example, play something on TV with the playback controls on the mobile).

Samsung’s vision of convergence, he says, is to make sure the content on all its devices can be shared wirelessly — and one of the ways of doing this is through its All Share apps. Its Smart TV offers 1,400 apps, of which 200 are India-specific. At its Bangalore and Noida R&D facilities, thousands of people are working to develop apps that converge across all devices.

Home-grown durables company Videocon, which entered the feature phone category in 2009, is getting into smartphones. Says Bipin Narang, marketing head, mobile phones division, Universal Digital Connect (Videocon’s mobile enterprise), “It is important for companies to be present across the device spectrum today.”

In mobiles, Narang says Videocon’s strategy is to personalise app offerings according to the target customer profile. “What we do is embed specific apps into specific phones. Kids prefer to have social networking apps (WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter). We have developed a phone that caters to BPO employees, one that does not have a camera.”

Videocon, which has a DTH play too, has now got into a partnership with the DDB (Digital Direct Broadcast) Foundation to launch DDB-enabled TVs. The TVs — that enable a cloud TV service — allow users to share files, music and videos. The DDB Foundation is a joint venture between seven companies — Videocon, STMicroelectronics, application maker Irdeto, cloud computing company Nivio, audio-video technology firm Faroudja, sound technology company Strata, and electronics company Philips.

Everybody then is taking different routes to the ultimate goal of convergence. Yet everyone is doing one thing that’s similar — investing in cloud networks to ensure a seamless connected device experience.

This August, LG launched LG Cloud that provides streaming access to multiple devices. Samsung too has invested in a cloud offering. Apple has the iCloud, Adobe has its Creative Cloud. Lenovo has recently acquired Stoneware, a company that specialises in cloud solution development — a move that Lenovo hopes will speed its PC-plus strategy. Microsoft and Google too have cloud offerings, apart from independent players such as Dropbox.
 
CHANGING THE ADVERTISING LANDSCAPE
It’s early days yet, but the growing convergence of content could disrupt the advertising landscape in future. As more video content migrates to platforms other than TV, how do advertisers make sure they are present there? Vdopia’s Preetesh Chouhan says the advertising dollar for mobile TV has already begun migrating from the digital marketing budget, and is now coming from clients’ mass media spends. This is significant because even a few months ago, all funds for ads on the mobile platform would come from the digital marketing outlay. And this is usually a minuscule 5 per cent of the client’s overall budget, while mass media accounts for over 70 per cent. “Advanced mobile advertising could soon challenge traditional media planning. It will offer rich media and video advertising on smartphones,” says Chouhan. Market strategist Rama Bijapurkar believes this will trigger a trend of personalisation of experiences — already marketers are able to offer targeted advertising based on usage patterns of a digital consumer.

The Final Frontier
So, are we there yet? Not yet, says Microsoft’s Akerkar, but we’re fairly close. Chouhan feels that Japan and Korea are ahead. Indeed, there are disruptive developments such as smartphones that double as remote controls for appliances (LG, Sharp and Toshiba are developing them) coming out of these countries. In India, while multi-device usage behaviour has caught on, the slow speed of broadband delivery means it’s still has some way to go, he adds.

HCL’s Nagarajan says that right now the back-end is ready — the design principles and framework needed for a seamless customer experience across devices are in place. But execution is stuttering. Once 4G takes off and the cloud gathers momentum, things will fall into place. Explaining how it works, he says: “We have an element called human interface design, which looks at how a person will navigate an application. In the olden days, you had time and motion studies in engineering. Today, we do journey mapping of customer experiences over an application — see what the touch points are and where this could break, and put in tech interventions to avoid a break.”

The speed at which companies are moving towards a converged devices ecosystem signals that a lot more could change. For instance, device makers say it will impact their distribution strategies. The channels for selling phones and TVs are different in India. This is why we could see more branded experience stores where the consumer can experience what the connected device world looks like. It will impact the way we work too. One fallout is BYOD (bring your own device), which is disrupting workplaces.

But, what happens to players still stuck to a one-screen presence? The word is still not out, but they would need to bridge the gap soon or be left behind. A classic example is Intel.

And, who knows, a game-changing innovation could provide a twist to the future, too. For instance, Akerkar paints a future where you may not even need to carry a device. Microsoft is putting the person first, not the device, he insists. So, going forward, one small identity device — and this could be embedded in your eye or worn on your wrist — would be enough for you to access your unique content across public phones, PCs and TVs. If only we could see the future.

chitra(dot)narayanan(at)abp(dot)in

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 10-12-2012)
 


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