ANT - trying not to be tiny in a big IPTV world
analysis Any company calling itself ANT is bound to have to put up with comments about its size, but despite its dominance of the IP set top browser market, the company cite very small.
This is best illustrated by the fact that last year the market for IPTV was, according to sales and marketing director, Stephen Reeder, only 1m devices.
At maybe $2 on average per browser installed, that’s just $2m in browser sales, and given that ANT wracked up 720,000 of these sales, a neat 72 per cent of the market, it must have made under $1.5m in revenue on browser sales.
In fact ANT’s entire revenues for 2004 were only revealed a few days after it went public last month, at £2.2m ($4.1m) and growing at roughly 25 per cent per annum since last year. Perhaps ANT is aptly named since it is usually other companies that get the credit for the simple, but important job it carries out in the IPTV food chain.
ANT began some 11 years ago and was really a lifestyle business for a few UK technologists for many years, but when a browser project for Bush Internet TV came up, in 1999, the company took a turn into its current direction of writing TV browsers.
After that a Spanish TV project Querio opened up the secret to the marketplace. Reeder told us, “Querio had out to tender a multisourced set top supply and selected a license straight from us. It told Thomson and some other manufacturers that they must take their browser license from us.”
Today that browser focus still brings in most of ANT’s revenue. It is the application in an IP TV set top that captures every keystroke (from the remote control usually) and interprets it for action either locally or for remote action. It talks to the head end and takes instructions from it.
ANT’s original browser is called Fresco and comes in two versions, one for the IPTV market and Fresco Lite, for other types of digital TV, such as cable and terrestrial.
Around 2m units Fresco have been deployed since the beginning of 1998, with over 700,000 shipped in 2004 It’s new browser, Galio was launched at the end of 2004 and is currently in testing. This will deliver what ANT calls a next generation user interface, which includes dynamic, animated and blended information overlays, suitable for a range of TV programs and for interactive services.
ANT says Galio is suitable for set tops and personal video recorders and was developed to take advantage of the latest W3C Internet standards and to reduce server load and bandwidth requirements. Galio will let operators develop more visually sophisticated services and already 11 set top manufacturers have taken the technology onboard. ANT also offers digital media management software that lets con-sumers to view, manage and share their personal media including photographs, videos and music on the set top.
“Our browser is written in C,” says Reeder, “and today it works pretty much on any operating system and on any silicon.” “Most set tops run some variant of Linux today, I’d say about 80 per cent of them,” says Reeder, “but there are other operating systems to deal with, Nucleus, PSOS, VXWorks and we even adapt or browser to run directly on the Bios of a DSP chip, for instance the Texas Instruments DM642.” It takes between four – six weeks to move the ANT products to another environment.
The attraction in using a DSP chip to run the browser, is that the same chip can be used to decode the MPEG or other codec stream as well, potentially reducing costs. “If you put the work all on the DSP, you don’t need a master processing chip,” explains Reeder. In fact the entire process of building a set top is all about driving down price. For IPTV, the set top is the main piece of customer premises equipment (CPE) and in every kind of network service operator it is the CPE that drives up the service price, because it is a contingent cost that has to be paid once again, every time a new client is connected to the service.
Whereas the margins for operating say a cellular network, are so high that cellular operators can afford to subsidize their equivalent, with handsets that cost in the region of $400-$600, the operators for IPTV services are working on thinner margins and can’t always afford to do this.
The commonly targeted price point currently for set tops is around $100, and the DSP element of this can be anything from $17 to $25. If a service operator has a separate codec chip this can be cheaper, around $7 to $10 for an MPEG2 version, but then the browser needs a processing chip to run on, and that can take the cost back up. Each set top is a trade off. If an operator is worried that content is going to be easier to take in one format or another, the decision may have to include support for multiple codecs.
“It’s cheaper to buy a chip that just handles H.264 natively,” says Reeder, but the price goes up if you need it to handle both VC1 (derived from the Microsoft Video Codec) as well as H.264 (this standard was worked on by the CCITT and H.264 adheres to its nam- ing principles, but it was also created by MPEG and is also called MPEG 4 Level 10 Advanced Video Coding).
“There’s a Conexant chip coming that has the H.264 codec built into its hardware that’s will probably start at around $15 and go down towards $10,”says Reeder.