Broken devices and broken promises
‘Bring your own device’ is a neat, cheap solution for many operators. Making their service available through third-party devices, which are often sold in supermarkets and priced for impulse purchase, saves them the expense of producing their own boxes and the administrative complexity of having them verified and authorised by the software provider.
But – as many are now discovering – there are problems with this approach.
Delegating responsibility to a third-party also means giving away any form of control and, when the box builder decides to start shedding services, or rolls out an update the operator isn’t ready to support, they have little to no redress.
This is bad news, but not only for the operator. Consumers lose out too, as access to their favourite services disappears. Inevitably, they blame the operator, who has to deal with the fallout by phone, email and, more worryingly, on social media.
Why do services disappear?
We have seen this in the UK recently on devices as varied as some inexpensive Now TV boxes sold through supermarkets and big-name smart TVs with streaming services built in. On some of these, BBC iPlayer support has been discontinued. For many UK consumers, that turns what was a viable entertainment device into an incomplete box overnight. Some of these devices were only five years old. This situation isn’t confined to the UK, either – it is being repeated in every market worldwide.
The majority of box and streaming stick manufacturers rely on third-party providers for their operating environment. In most cases, that third-party is Google, with various flavours of its Android operating system as the default choice. Depending on the version used, manufacturers can find themselves committed to upgrading the software every quarter. Operators piggybacking inexpensive hardware need to be mindful of these upgrades, and make sure their services remain compatible. If not, they will disappear.
Similarly, when the device manufacturer decides that the cost of rolling out the latest version of Android to older boxes is no longer cost-effective, an entire generation of hardware – not just the odd service among many – will reach end of life.
What is the solution?
When services disappear from inexpensive devices, consumers’ instinct is to replace them. This might sound like a quick and easy fix, but it doesn’t address the associated problem of electronic waste. Cheap consumer electronics are frequently sold on razor-thin margins, but many still contain semi-precious metals, and all of them generate a degree of harmful waste and pollution in the course of their production.
For operators, the solution is to ensure they make their service available through a diverse range of delivery mechanisms. The simplest would be to roll out a branded app with Chromecast, Miracast and AirPlay casting features. This will ensure they remain accessible across the broadest range of smart TVs and streaming add-ons, even if they haven’t yet been manufactured.
For hardware developers, the solution may not be so palatable, nor as easy to implement. In almost every instance, the root cause of this problem is pure economics. When devices are part of a larger operator-supported ecosystem, linked to a smartphone platform or streaming service, brands can afford to sell them at low profit, at cost, or even at a loss, secure in the knowledge that they will make back the cost of production over time by selling supplementary services.
Pure box and streaming builders, who have no associated services of their own, have no such incentive to continue supporting either services or hardware once they become uneconomical. The solution is naturally to raise the initial purchase price to pay for extended support but, to avoid being undercut by the competition, individual hardware providers can only afford to do this if their rivals do the same. Getting buy-in across the market looks increasingly unlikely.
Before operators embrace the culture of ‘bring your own device’, it is important to understand the risks, as well as the rewards, of what they are getting into.
If you are unsure of your next steps for migrating your system, contact SmartLabs on firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your options.