Market Insight

NTT deploying Android STB with ST Microelectronics Orly


On June 3, 2013 NTT Plala will deploy a new set-top box (STB): the Sumitomo Electric ST-3200. The STB will run Android 4.0 - commonly known as Ice Cream Sandwich - on ST Microelectronics' STiH415 "Orly" chip. The STB will offer a 30-title cloud-based gaming service powered by G-Cluster for  ¥525 - approximately $5 - per month. The STB is capable of transcoding content and sharing it with handsets and tablets on the home network, in addition to DLNA Premium Video media sharing between connectable STBs, TV sets and BD-recorders, which is a standard feature of free digital TV in Japan.

NTT currently has 2.3 million IPTV subscribers, making it the largest IPTV operator to embrace Android to date. This is also the first public design win for ST Microelectronics' "Orly" multimedia home gateway (MHG) chip.

NTT's choice of Android could yield a number of benefits: it facilitates standards-based in-house software development, which will lead to shorter software innovation cycles, lower development costs and greater control of the user experience; easy portability of apps from Google Play and access to the large Android developer community; improved harmony between NTT's IPTV and mobile software platforms, which should aid multiscreen TV service development. Though Android suffers from premium content security concerns in the pay-TV industry, operators remain interested in Android's potential.

These benefits are not unique to Android. HTML5, similarly, facilitates standards-based in-house development, has a large developer community, enjoys easy cross-platform portability, but runs on an even wider range of devices. An HTML5 approach is being pursued by a range of operators. Not only has Numericable made HTML5 the primary middleware API on its LaBox MHG, the two dominant pay-TV middleware providers; Cisco, through NDS, and Nagravision, through OpenTV,  are each making their STB software platforms HTML5-compatible.

Comcast's standards-based STB operating system: Reference Design Kit (RDK), which is to be deployed by both Comcast and Time Warner Cable, uses a lower-level approach. It integrates not only HTML5 but also other mobile development toolkits including Qt, Flash, and Java directly. While not as common as Android or HTML5, RDK can draw upon a much larger developer community than previous set-top box operating systems could. This approach requires some additional porting of each application's code, which would therefore increase development time and cost compared with Android or pure HTML5. However, this approach would likely produce software that is more optimized for each hardware platform and would therefore run more efficiently and reliably.

NTT's choice of Android for its IPTV STBs has also benefited ST Microelectronics' "Orly" MHG semiconductor. Orly is similar in performance terms to the Broadcom and Intel chips being used in current MHGs. It differs in that it is currently the only MHG SoC using the ARM architecture that also powers the vast majority of Android smartphones. Android has also been deployed commercially on both MIPS and x86 processors, but the ARM commonality makes porting apps from Google Play more straightforward than it would be for other processor architectures.

There is a general trend towards ARM in the MHG SoC market. Broadcom's newest MHG designs use the ARM instruction set, and Entropic is expected to release an ARM-based MHG SoC soon, as well. Commonality with mobile platforms is often cited by semiconductor vendors as a reason to move to ARM, likely advancing the transition away from other architectures more quickly than if it was based on performance alone. However, in all but the highest-end set-top box segments, MIPS-based processors still hold a majority market share.