We finally did it. After a year of active project planning, development and delivery work, the Astro Byond team that I was part of delivered Malaysia’s first multilingual TV Guide and quite possibly the only TV Guide in Southeast Asia available in four major languages (English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil). You can check it out here (sorry it’s in Malay for now as the English version isn’t out yet).
In a culturally-diverse nation like Malaysia, providing vernacular options are a must. Prior to the project, we also decided to refresh and deploy a new User Interface. There were plenty of challenges to overcome. The major ones were:
1. Tight timelines. This is always the case but could be argued to be a matter of opinion! The timelines had to include several interations of software development so that we could not only get used to the new layout, but also verify the language text (or ‘strings’ in tech speak). This was compounded by an expanded Video On Demand catalogue that contained several different business models, primarily SVOD and TVOD. Netflix only uses one SVOD model while Apple uses TVOD. We don’t have that simplicity for various reasons. So for our VOD service for example, we literally had dozens of test cases to run through.
2. Transliteration Spacing. Everywhere that text appears on-screen is a graphical widget that needs to be flexible to accommodate our 4 languages comfortably. Mandarin’s character-based script is more economical than English and Malay’s Roman-based alphabets. Malay words tend to be longer. Tamil uses vowels and fonts but is structured in such a way that the words are even longer than Malay. The result was a careful balancing act whilst trying to maintain aesthetic standards.
3. Delivery and Testing. This is not just about accepting the development work but going through rigorous processes that identify and eliminate bugs across different types of set-top boxes (STBs). In addition, the whole process of Alpha and Beta testing is necessary so that customer feedback is solicited and used for improvements. Doing this on STBs isn’t as easy as simply doing an App software update on your iPhone! Trial user identification, communication/management, survey automation/collation and management reporting are essential steps in the process to ensure that stakeholders are aware of issues.
4. Marketing. The product management team had to ensure that enough materials – product literature and screen-shots – were able to be generated to support the go-to-market efforts by the Marcomms team. Vetting drafts of the artwork was essential and compounded by the fact that four languages needed to be checked in their own context.
We had some amazing colleagues who led and managed the entire programme to its fruition, of which I was pleased to just be a part of. But the result was that our work with our primary partners NDS was deemed a success on many fronts. It’s been an incredible journey planning and rolling out what is a major improvement that will be enjoyed by over 3 million customers. It certainly gave me a perspective on the gravity of the work, and the excitement that we hoped to give our customers with something new and improved. The work isn’t over yet. Having set the benchmark in a multilingual guide makes future product releases just as demanding. But that’s what it means to be part of the Byond team here at Astro. Going beyond what the competitors can offer and make our products as compelling as possible.
Oliver Stone apparently had his most fun making Alexander, detailing the Macedonian’s mercurial campaigns that culminated with the invasion of India. It was the height of Alexander’s conquest. Like Alexander, linear Pay TV is facing an inflection point as it reaches the apex of its offerings. After HD, the PVR and 3D, the next offering is apparently 4K, but don’t let that fool you as consumers know when overkill has arrived in their living rooms. Today’s consumer is too busy trying to figure out how to make use of the 150+ channels they subscribe to. Aside from battling the influx of pesky OTT players trying to outflank them, Pay-TV operators are simply trying to give customers a reason to pay exorbitantly high subscription fees.
The notion that content is King is no longer being touted. It is a given. It is a price-of-entry requirement. A hygiene point. Now the new, must-have is Content Discovery and your Pay-TV set-top boxes need to get connected to the web real quick. But overall, if your organization doesn’t have Content Discovery as a strategy, it could be on as rapid a decline as Alexander’s armies were after the Battle of Hydaspes. Sky Deutschland is one of the many operators (like Astro) that’s doing it now.
Content Discovery encompasses the following:
Search Engine. Usually productized in as Global Search, this powerful feature allows anything in the PVR to be searched from keywords entered. Both linear, PVR recordings and VOD catalogues should be included, and this can be powerful if aided with an advance EPG. Search, then Record. Simple as that.
Recommendation Engine. This is the where users will increase consumption. Content-based recommendations will ensure users get the most out of a vast catalogue but it is also important to note that a true, personalized recommendation engine (one that knows your past history) is deployed.
Social Recommendations. Using the wisdom of the crowd could be important. What if you could log-in using a Facebook account and share your Top 5 or Watchlist with others? And what if your OTT device or Set-Top Box told you that such content being shared by others was available already?
This is the future of TV as we know it. Don’t boast about content anymore. Shout out discovery and your customers will have one less reason to cut the proverbial cord.
How’s that history-making? Firstly, let me tell you what Astro First is. Astro First is actually what we call NVOD (Near VOD). A series of linear channels that screen movies (one for each channel) at scheduled intervals. You subscribe to the movie (and channel) of your choice within a 48 hour window period and you watch again if you have time or continue at the next slot. Users with a PVR box and no internet connection subscribe to the service via SMS.
Despite its low-tech approach, Astro First was phenomenally successful when it launched last year, primarily because it offered the convenience of viewing local movies within 2 weeks of their cinema release. Subscribers loved it as they saved money going to the cinemas and hefty additional ticket fees. We enabled it on our VOD Store this year on Byond PVR boxes with the ease of remote-enabled purchase.
However, our initiative on Facebook has huge implications: Firstly, Now ANYONE can watch Astro First titles by simply purchasing it from our Official Facebook App and watching it immediately from a PC or Mac. In fact, after making some tweaks, you can a watch it on a whole lot of mobile or tablet devices simply because we make the browser the prime viewing platform (it’s a web app, not native ‘store-based’).
Secondly, it’s revolutionary because it allows all the Facebook features like posting comments or sharing of key moments (curated by Astro) from the player page, generating interest from friends as well as ensuring much of the content inside is viralized. This actually helps content providers or studios leverage the full effect of Facebook in spreading ‘love’ for a particular movie.
Warner Bros actually made the first leap into this ‘social cinema’ experience when the Dark Knight was released 15-months ago. I believe Malaysia is the first country in Asia to try this out. It’s early days yet so we don’t expect a tidal wave of users to come in. What we expect is to delight customers with more ways for them to consume their favourite content. Currently the app is Geo-filtered so only Malaysians will be able to enjoy the service. Hopefully, this will change in the near future and enable more Malaysian movies to be viewed by Malaysians abroad.
In the previous video I shared you would have seen Irdeto’s Cedric Monier waxing lyrical about the wonders of multi-screen experiences, including great interactivity, features like ‘book-marking’ – watching a movie on one device and then taking off from where you left on the next one, and others. It was actually a great pleasure to meet Cedric when he visited Kuala Lumpur to guide Astro on its development of Astro On-The-Go (our own multi-screen product).
Well, that was months ago. Somehow, it seems like yesterday. Just two days ago we finally launched it to the media at our favourite venue again: the Double Tree Hotel. Barely 14 months after we launched Astro Byond IPTV, here we were, ensuring another product got off to the best possible start.
Astro On-The-Go aims to make watching our DTH content easy simply by allowing it to appear and be synced to our PCs, Tablets and Smartphones. Should you own an Astro Byond PVR and have access to our new VOD UI, you’ll be able to make purchases into your box. They’ll then appear on your devices too.
The current launch doesn’t include Android devices and iPhone. The latter will be targeted in the next phase over the next few weeks. That should be launched within months. But the buzz that reverberates from within the company is great and we’ve got an amazing marketing campaign that will really put it into the minds of consumers. Plus, we’re all keen to see if the VOD viewing behaviour here is just like what’s been observed in Europe and the US – that linear viewing actually consumes the bulk of video consumption online. That and many others. The journey continues.
It’s been a proud moment amidst the World Cup tournament as Astro is finally getting a fair bit of notice, not only by the media, but by the trade as well. Never before has any country in Asia been able to stream the World Cup live on web and mobile platforms simultaneously for all 64 matches. And we’re only the second in Asia to stream all live on the web.
I guess 2010 has been the perfect year for it, thanks to the emergence of some new technologies and the maturation of others. In the former, the growth of Conviva as a monitoring tool for live or VOD streaming with granular detail has served us well by allowing us to understand the consumer and potentially even engage with them if they faced a problem.
Our maiden effort with Irdeto has seen us deploy a Silverlight player – known as Astro B.player – that features the SmoothStreaming adaptive bit-rate technology that will help audiences so much more in their viewing experiences.
Then there are the usual things that make for essential Live Streaming success: a good CDN, trusted encoders and a web team to put it all in. Powering it in the middle is my Content Hub team. It’s not an easy task to launch a team almost from scratch but the sweat and toil was worth it. Even as I write this, nine editors and video publishers are hard at work pulling in live footage from two matches (playing concurrently, mind you) and pushing out highlight clips quickly to web and 3G mobile.
They are backed up by a daytime team of web producers and overseen by me. The great thing is that they’ve managed to be trained in a short time and picked up new skills as they go, and contributing individually to some excellent team camaraderie.
For the full OnScreen article of Astro’s success, you can read it right here.
In 1967, famous producer Daryl F. Zanuck’s epic feature film The Longest Day depicted the momentous occasion that was the Normandy landings by the Allied forces in France. It was an action-packed film that showed in detail how difficult it was to land an army on heavily fortified beaches against a determined enemy.
Despite great precision in planning, many things still went wrong with the invasion and casualties among the Americans, for example, were very heavy. Still, by the end of the day, the Allies managed to grab a foothold on the beaches. The significance of the day was the fact that the Allies now had a small but important foothold in Europe, one that was designed to end the dominance of Nazi Germany on the continent.
Zanuck’s film reminded me how we started what seems to be The Longest Fortnight in Astro’s Techonology & New Media history.
It all begin last Tuesday. We launched the new Astro PVR, an integrated set-top box with a hard drive, or one with an external hard disk drive. Then it was the Astro B.player which puts Astro on the iPhone App store for the very first time. To top it off, we completed this trilogy by greeting Thursday (today) with the newly revamped http://www.astro.com.my containing several new self-servicing features in addition to its new, fresher look.
However, the biggest portion of our fortnight has just begun with the mobilization of various operational teams for the World Cup 2010 finals. We’ll not only be broadcasting it in HD but my own team (which has grown from 4 persons to 9, and soon 10) will be leading the web and mobile streaming of the matches. Manifested by the B.player, this will be the big online presence that is designed to give Astro it’s foothold on a new media landscape dominated by the Catch Up TV portals from Media Prima.
Our foothold will be all the more important because we’re launching it via web and mobile at the same time.
In this tumultuous and frenetic time, it’s been tiring and exhilarating as we worked through the obstacles of bugs and technical glitches. But we’ve allied ourselves with the best vendors. It’s made us work 14-hour days. But come 8th July 2010, we’re going to finally be making history with our own D-Day. Our own Normandy landings. With 64 live-streaming events and over 300 VOD clips, this will be our signal that Astro has turned the tide.
Best of all, it will be exactly 66 years to the day (Tuesday, albeit the 6th) that the Normandy Landings took place. Frankly, I’ll enjoy being part of history again. The Longest Fortnight would be all worth it when I look back in years to come; when we showed the world that history would be changing yet again, thanks to an awesome Astro B.yond team.
I’m really enjoying the key learnings from our divisional retreat a couple of months back. We had some amazing leadership instruction, camaraderie and bonding which also led me to win the CTO’s John Logie Baird award was for ‘displaying leadership potential’ during the 3 days we ‘huddled’ together.
I was really surprised to win it but I did do my best to stand out and let my voice be heard. However, I felt even more privileged to learn about the McKinney Rogers way of mission leadership, a management philosophy that draws heavily from military parallels. Von Clausewitz’s theory of friction is one of the drivers behind this philosophy.
At its heart, the McKinney way sets simple, clear rules that can cascade down all levels of management, even to the lowest ranking executive. Everyone knows their goals, tasks and dependencies and can link it back to their direct superior’s goals. And, ultimately, the company’s goals too.
Having been on a few, this was undoubtedly THE best retreat I ever had and I was grateful to receive the award, particularly from my inspiring CTO Paul Dale. However, the real prize is being surrounded by some of the most gifted broadcast professionals, something I truly treasure each day at work.
With so much going on the past few months I’ve had some time now to think about where 2010 is heading. A lot has been said about Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to charge for online content as well as the ascent of mobile advertising. Even the rise of Twitter. There are naysayers and there are soothesayers, there are so-called prophets and there are wild-predictors. I don’t plan to be any of them. I’m just going to call the predictions as I see them and the rest of the year is going to judge me on it.
Here is my list for 2010’s Beyond The Thermocline predictions:
1. Twitter Will Explode
If you think Facebook has been getting all the hype, don’t ignore Twitter. Over a hundred tools have emerged that are taking Twitter to places involving advertising, coupons, all sorts of topical and functional tracking lists and much more. The increasing number of mobile clients are also making it the de facto micro blogging tool for netizens worldwide. It’s impossible to estimate the number of Twitter users (only Twitter HQ knows it and they ain’t telling) but the last estimate is 44 million unique visitors in June alone, just on the website. We know less than half of total users visit twitter.com so the traffic stats are gargantuam.
2. Content Charging Will Not Be A Pot Of Gold
Rupert Murdoch can get all the muscle he wants behind his content-charging consortium, but the media mogul is going to be defeated by the very people he relies on – audiences. That’s right, audiences. Murdoch may be right in saying that there’s not enough ad revenue to go around for all online publishers. But that just means some online sites have to go under. It’s not being nice. It’s law of the jungle and Murdoch knows all about it. Which is more than he knows about content. By the way, aside from Malaysiakini, I don’t think content publishers here have a chance in hell too of selling subscription too. That’s us Malaysians for you.
3. Mobile Video Viewing Will Rise Steeply (but not explode)
Spurred by safe, integrated billing options with the mobile telcos, consumers are going to embrace more made-for-mobile content or repurposed content for mobile consumption. People are on the go and there are major events not to be missed. Namely the World Cup. There will be a need for content that are just more than highlights or news-flashes. Broadcasters are already seeing this opportunity and telcos will be at their back and call. By the way, I’m not talking about YouTube for mobile here. I mean REAL made-for-mobile content, folks.
4. Olivia Munn Will Crossover To Mainstream TV
Okay, I got you guys with this one! I’m only half-joking here but as this blog’s all about new media and entertainment, think there’s potential for this to happen. I’m not the only one wishing for it but it’s time to see this talented lass take on more platforms to showcase her talent. Hey, Sasha Grey went from porn to mainstream, right?
Those are my 3 predictions but I’ll be happy to be right on at least 2 of the above. Sorry, number 4 doesn’t count, okay?