Point: The Virtues of Virtual Clients

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March 31, 2011
Point
David M Bankers

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Today it seems as though everyone in consumer electronics is talking about apps, smart TVs, over the top TV (OTT) and so forth. Numerous companies want to sell you an apps-enabled box to attach to your TV, whether that is an Apple TV, a Roku box or a Blu-ray player with Netflix. And every major TV manufacturer would like to sell you an apps-enabled TV to connect to Web delivered content-and of course, add yet another remote control to your collection.

After more than 15 years, consumer product vendors are still trying to figure out the best way to deliver Web content through the TV. Is it through a set-top box (STB), technology built into the TV itself or something else? Even the big movers in that space, like Apple and Google, are struggling to find the right combination of user interaction, software and hardware. The Apple TV product alone has seen two hardware versions as well as multiple operating system and user interface refreshes since it was launched in 2006. Google TV is a work in progress that is still struggling to gain traction with consumers. 

But is that the right model for the hotel guest room? Layer the uncertainties mentioned above over the reality that, unlike at home, guests in hotel rooms don’t want to face unfamiliar technology, can’t call on their 10-year-old to help figure it out, may not be able to unplug a device when it locks up and definitely don’t have the time or ability to download the newest software or firmware upgrade. Not to mention the costs of in-room hardware and software installations and upgrades necessary to keep up with consumer expectations.

Technology is moving fast, and we are all being asked to do more with less. IT departments all over the world are moving from individual servers and complex client-based applications to virtualization-that is, migrating complex client-based applications to shared server-based applications and thinner desktop clients to reduce costs and manage complexity. In the process they are realizing significant operational benefits that include:

  • Reduced costs due to increased efficiency resulting from improved utilization of shared resources. 
  • Improved capability and performance for complex apps because you can spend more on shared servers than you can afford for each user. 
  • Reduced staffing and maintenance costs due to the efficiency of centrally locating the servers that provide the virtual clients. 
  • Improved troubleshooting because it’s easier to get an expert to the problem. 
  • Elimination of problems caused by end user configuration changes and tampering.

Given these inherent advantages, we believe virtualization is an important direction for the future for hotel technology, including in-room media technology, and that it will prove to be an effective model for delivering interactivity, entertainment and Web content to the guest room television.
There are a couple of other key questions you should ask regarding your interactive television offering.

Let’s first agree that the television is a part of the in-room ecosystem and our arguments are not about eliminating it.

Next, you should ask what kind of television interface you should deliver to the guest. Should the interface be PC-like, tablet- like, mobile-like or a TV with remote control? Each involves a screen and a different method of user interaction. As mentioned earlier, very large companies are trying to figure this out, and the one answer that has emerged to date is that the interface needs to be more casual than the interface we use with our PCs.

Second, you should ask how the offering will be delivered. By adding an in-room box to the TV you typically duplicate TV components (such as tuners, video processors and power supplies), thereby increasing total solution cost, complexity and maintenance demands. The box and its connections increase the chances of guest tampering in this less controlled environment. Solutions that do not require an additional in-room device will, by nature, be more secure and more streamlined than those that do (for example, by integrating the decrypting and decoding and IPG functionality inside the TV).

The idea behind a virtual client approach is to put reasonable cost, modestly capable TVs in the guest room and connect them to high performance servers (in a hotel data center, regional data center or the cloud), and then deliver end-device compatible services. The connection between the device and server is critical to performance. This connection can be done via an IP network or an RF (coax) network. If it’s done over IP you have many protocols to choose from. If you have an RF network you will want to use something like DOCSIS, HPNA, MOCA or LodgeNet’s b-LANTM and appropriate protocols available on them.

Ultimately, we believe a balance is ideal:  modestly capable TVs as in-room clients for very frequently used lightweight apps (like a program guide) and virtual clients for complex heavyweight apps.
 

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