Fragmentation Remains a Major Factor in OTT Video World

Float Left makes strides with system that lets publishers go ‘native’ on multiple platforms
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After cutting its teeth on the Roku platform, Float Left, a privately held company founded in 2009 that specializes in developing and deploying TV apps, has extended a bridge to several other major streaming platforms. The list included Apple TV, mobile, smart TVs, Amazon Fire TV and Vewd (formerly known as Opera TV).

In addition to developing custom apps for major brands such as Crackle, NBC Sports and AMC, Float Left has also created a white-label TV apps product called Flicast that can help mid-tier brands and smaller players extend onto a growing ecosystem.

While the process of hitting all of those platforms has gotten easier, video publishers are still faced with a fragmented platform market that makes it a challenge to bring a high-performance “native” experience to all (or most) of them.

Related > TV Apps: The Last Mile

Multichannel News technology editor Jeff Baumgartner recently caught up with Float Left CEO Tom Schaeffer to discuss how those challenges are being overcome along with other trends that are affecting the multiscreen video sector. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: Let’s start with the name. What does Float Left refer to in the context of TV apps and your business?
Tom Schaeffer:
Unfortunately, it really doesn’t. [Laughs.] When I founded the company, for a very brief time we were a web applications business. We were building web apps. Float Left is a reference to an HTML styling paradigm. It’s a way to lay out items on a web page. We were just sitting around and it was the least terrible name we could think of.

MCN: You develop on a bunch of platforms. Fragmentation has always been seen as a long pole in the tent. Is that still the case when it comes to the biggest tech or operational challenges faced by the industry today?
TS:
For companies that are doing this what I’d argue is the right way, which is pure, native development for all of these different platforms, yes, [fragmentation] still presents a huge challenge. You do make up some ground with the smart TV ecosystem, where everything is based in HTML5. But for the platforms that are driving a lot of the ROI for the brand — Apple TV and Roku and [Amazon] Fire TV — those are absolutely independent platforms and require different code and different skill sets.

Part of the strategy we’ve put forth is we want to invest in native. Yes, it’s going to take longer, and yes, it’s going to be more of a technical challenge, but we know the end product and the result that the publishers get when they get that complete suite of apps. It’s an overall better experience. It’s easier for [the publishers] to manage, and it’s easier for us to manage on behalf of them.

We thought with the Smart TV Alliance that this was the first step in a unification of code to make the TV experience better, but really everyone is going in their own direction. And we don’t see that getting better, at least with respect to the platforms that matter to publishers today.

That’s what Flicast is … underneath that is a technology that helps to make this process manageable for us and for the publishers.

MCN: So we’re not yet at a point where it’s code once, deploy everywhere, because there are still enough nuances between these platforms?
TS:
If you’re doing one code and you’re deploying everywhere, you’re not truly going native. That does impact performance at the end of the day. From our perspective, it’s still very fragmented. We’re not at a place now, and I don’t think we’ll ever be at a place, where you hit a button and it kind of goes everywhere. It’s more managed in frameworks and tools that we’re developing underneath the surface.

MCN: What platform is the most grueling to develop for in terms of certification? Do they all represent a degree of pain?
TS:
They all definitely have their own degree of pain at certain times. Roku certainly has been a challenge. You’d sometimes have a brand that was developed on Apple TV with a rich experience here, but they also love Roku. We would have to build our own screens and make it do things that it wasn’t initially designed to do.

That was back then. Today, it’s become more difficult in just the sheer number of platforms that are required. When you get an app certified on Roku, it’s being tested against dozens of different models and versions. When we develop an app, we go through our own process of quality assurance before we even submit to Roku’s app store.

Just by the nature of those things, that’s still the most challenging platform, but it’s also the most worthwhile, we believe, and the publishers should still be leading with that platform.

MCN: Is there any platform that’s making some recent gains in terms of gravity and interest?
TS:
We’re seeing a lot of that with Amazon Fire TV. We think that that’s becoming a platform that publishers [are using] to go direct to consumer. [Amazon has] a wonderful development relationship team that supports the development community, so it’s become a lot better for companies to deploy there. From a publisher’s perspective, Amazon is definitely up there now, whereas a year or two ago they were unsure how it was going to play out.

Apple TV is such a powerful platform. I think the concern there is that the channels, unless you’re a big brand, are just getting lost. And that’s a concern across the board. As far as deploying, and deploying on that platform, tvOS has become one where you can do anything you want nowadays. When we’re talking to folks about where you should distribute, I think that’s a big factor.

The smart TVs are also making big strides. Samsung is doubling down with Tizen, [and] the LG webOS platform is still solid, and I think that’s going to start having a bigger impact next year.

MCN: For your company, where do you see the most growth coming from? Is it from virtual MVPDs, SVOD services or even TV everywhere?
TS:
Maybe two years ago, anybody who had a VOD library was trying to get into the game. I think nowadays they’re becoming more savvy and more aware of the challenges. That group of folks is starting to subside. Now we’re starting to see a push by the virtual [multichannel video programming distributors] and operators, and they are now targets of ours. That’s not something we’ve traditionally been targeting, but we are going to be targeting that market now and in the future.

And you’re still seeing a lot of the pay TV programmers that are still trying to figure this out [with] TV everywhere. We’ve just deployed Ovation Now, which is the Ovation network’s direct-to-consumer offering for TV everywhere, and they are on our Flicast platform.

MCN: What sorts of features or enhancements are on the roadmap?
TS:
Especially because we’re starting to target the MVPDs, I think [electronic program guides] are going to be something we’ll really start to focus on. We have a solid one that’s a base feature that we’ll start rolling out. We’re taking a lot of lessons learned from big brands.

For example, Crackle has a great feature...an always-on feature, which is basically live video playing in the background with the user interface basically hidden, or brought back into focus depending on if you want to navigate content.

It’s a pattern we’re seeing that [consumers] just want to sit down and watch something. Having to browse endlessly, I think, creates a little bit of friction. Now we’re showing video, and if they want to browse, they can browse, but there’s video playing with the always-on feature. That’s also something we’re integrating into Flicast.

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