Is Software Eating Broadcast Tech?

With a month to go until the broadcast industry’s annual pilgrimage to NAB in Las Vegas, thoughts turn to what major trends in broadcast technology will be on show. Apart from the predictable replacement of 3D with 4K as the Next Big Thing, a more general theme is emerging. To paraphrase Marc Andreessen, software appears to be eating broadcast technology.

In his article 18 months ago, Andreessen noted that a broad swathe of industries are being disrupted by software delivered services and software companies in general. Software, he said, was “eating the world” and it does indeed seem to be chomping its way into broadcasting. This shift from atoms to bits has lagged behind other industries for a number of reasons, but primarily due to the nature of high resolution video processing and distribution. Tape based workflows have refused to die and for good reason – they provide a reliable and predictable medium from camera to playout but times are definitely a changing. File based workflows have seen dramatic growth over the past few years and this of course removes some atoms from the scene (tapes, VTRs and people for a start).

Meanwhile, the hardware-centric, industry specific, single function components that populate the transmission chain (particularly in playout) are trending towards software-centric multi purpose platforms. These software platforms integrate previously discrete components such as automation, QC, branding, graphics, video servers and so on running on standard IT hardware and infrastructure.

This is disruptive in a number of ways. It forces vendors to expand beyond their original specialisms or face being eaten by adjacent software. This is particularly notable in the many channel-in-a-box solutions for broadcast playout where vendors are integrating each others functions to both increase their offerings and stay in the game. Rather than seeing channel-in-a-box solutions eliminating vendor diversity, we are instead seeing an increasing diversity of channel-in-a-box solutions from all the vendors.

The other disruptive implication of software centric systems is increased flexibility in architecture and deployment models. Software can be logically and physically separated from the previously dedicated underlying hardware. This opens the door to virtualisation and cloud based implementation scenarios, something we can expect to hear a lot about at this years NAB.

That leads neatly onto the disruptive potential of cloud computing in the broadcast and media industries. At the same time as broadcast technology is becoming more software and IT based, public cloud infrastructure such as Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure is becoming more broadcast capable. This convergence is just starting to happen and is evidenced by the launch of Windows Azure Media Services and Amazon’s Elastic Transcode Service within the last month.

These trends have profound implications for broadcasters, service providers and vendors. To take advantage of these developments and remain competitive, they need to recruit and develop different types of skills and adapt everything from how they build, manage and sell their wares to what their offer is and how they differentiate themselves in a fast changing world. This is a non-trivial change and will both test and change the industry as we know it.

As always, change is the only constant in a technology driven world and broadcasting is in the eye of the storm right now. Innovation is hard, most innovations fail and companies that don’t innovate die. But that shouldn’t stop us for a minute. See you at NAB.