Digital media convergence, when it comes, will it be powered by Android?

Though many devices continue to advance forward in capability, refinement, and processing power, the ability to all work together to give you what you want, when you want, with minimal hassles, doesn’t quite exist yet.

By Paul Erickson, Senior Analyst, CE Group, IMS Research November 16, 2011

With all the talk of multiscreen strategies and the convergence of multiple devices into a cohesive shell of digital media interaction options for the modern consumer, one thing is easy to lose track of in the conversation – we aren’t there yet. Though many devices continue to advance forward in capability, refinement, and processing power, the ability to all work together to give you what you want, when you want, with minimal hassles, doesn’t quite exist yet. 

Though connectivity, usability, integration, software development, bandwidth, interoperability, DRM, and other issues are all part of the equation, the eventual realization of the “convergence” concept may not hinge just on solving these problems, but more importantly on finding an significant common denominator to build solutions and products around. Conceptually, Android may actually be the most common of denominators across the widest variety of devices over time. 

Android has already succeeded in penetrating two out of the typical three screens in a multi-screen media delivery concept – the smartphone and tablet. The third, TVs, have been a more difficult challenge for Google, but 2012 may see some increased traction in that regard. With the release of Google TV 2.0, it appears CE manufacturers are now more comfortable with venturing into Android-based waters with TVs. The 2012 CES is rumored to host the debut of newer Google TV based connected TV sets from LG and other companies. Despite this, the real inroads that will be made in the television and set-top box sectors by Android are not in Google TV-branded form, but as regular Android. 

Though Vizio is the only TV set maker to publicly commit to Android on a significant basis thus far, nearly every connected TV set manufacturer has begun to explore the use of Android as a base operating system with their own branded UI and experience built on top. China’s most-significant local connected TV manufacturers have already quickly transitioned to Android as their base operating system. Android-based products have yet to debut in the west (with the exception of Sony’s Google TV-branded product) from major CE brands, but it is likely in the long-term given that some of these same companies also happen to sell Android-based smartphones and tablets. According to IMS Research report, “Over-the-Top Video: Hardware and Connectivity,” over 47% of worldwide connected TV shipments in 2016 are expected to be Android-based. Also, various set-top box manufacturers, such as Echostar Europe and LG CNS, have debuted or will debut Android-based set-top boxes for the pay-TV sector. Essentially, for the “main” screen of the multi-screen concept, the TV, Android is expected to make the most penetration as an underlying operating system, not as an overtly-branded experience. 

In the long run, two main obstacles may affect Android’s adoption across CE devices capable of video delivery. One is the ability to receive updates to the core Android operating system, as many companies’ custom Android experiences often result in a significant branch from Android open-source code. The second is determining what party or parties have ownership over the customer metadata, and by extension determining who controls the advertising-related revenue stream. 

Beyond media-based convergence, it should also be noted that Google is now pursuing the smart home appliance/device sector. Again, the open-source nature of Android lends itself to the operating system being able to be used in a broader variety of device categories than most would imagine, and is of particular interest to many parties due to the potential for functional integration with the fast-growing Android mobile device installed base. As evidence of this, IMS Research’s “Mobile Handset Market Intelligence Service and Database” estimates that shipments of Android smartphones are nearly double in 2011 compared to last year, nearing half of the market.  An upward trend is expected to continue, with Android handset shipments growing from 170 million units worldwide in 2011 to nearly 230 million in 2012, and to almost half a billion in 2016. Overall, Google’s open-source OS is expected to penetrate the consumer device universe far more broadly across device categories than iOS, despite the Apple OS’ current ubiquity. 

With the many different devices being sold by different manufacturers, and with the fast pace of technological innovation in hardware, it is easy to see how the different moving pieces of the “convergence” concept have thus far created a fragmented whole. Consumers have yet to arrive at a place where digital media convergence works for them, at a convenient level. It is likely that different devices will best identify, interact, and interoperate with one another with some manner of ubiquitous shared commonality in hardware, software, communication standards, or operating system. Though the recent incorporation of Wi-Fi Direct into DLNA interoperability guidelines will help ease the pain of connection, it seems that the most fundamental, and numerically significant universal piece of commonality to exploit going forward will be the Android operating system. Whether developers and manufacturers will be able to successfully create user-friendly interoperability between smartphones, tablets, connected TVs, pay-TV set-top boxes, home automation devices, in-car entertainment, and all the other potential devices utilizing Android, is a separate question. 

Nonetheless, Android continues to march onward in terms of penetration across different device categories, and if there is any common ground to exploit among all the different devices that comprise the digital media convergence equation, it is increasingly apparent that going forward Android will be the strongest common bond between the highest number of devices across different categories.

It seems that if digital media convergence ever happens, Android is likely to be the unifying element of many of the pieces. Google’s operating system will be in your future, even if you don’t know it yet.