IBC 2019: Interactive takes centre stage as VR shuffles to side lines

Every couple of years there seems to be a massive resurgence for the promise of virtual reality before it is cast to the shadows. This year, interactive content took the limelight from VR.

This is not to say VR and augmented reality wasn’t present at IBC in Amsterdam. Throughout the exhibition halls you could see plenty of headsets and software to build the immersive environment, but on the conference stage it was barely mentioned.

The main stage is the business-end of almost every conference; it a technology or company isn’t a headliner, the ‘also-ran’ category list has gotten a bit longer. This is the conundrum which VR and AR has found itself in; there are some interesting technologies and discussions going on, but the most important people are talking about something else.

AR is progressing very quickly from the pale imitation which captured the imagination through the Pokémon Go app, but the illusive business case continues to frustrate. That said, an important trend which was evident through several sessions was interactive content.

This is an area which looks genuinely exciting. Everything from ‘Bandersnatch’ on Netflix, through to personalisation of sports content (selecting a commentator or parallel content) or Celebrity Big Brother, where users can select the camera they want to view and create their own viewing experience and story to follow. This is the next stage of content, and it is immediately more realistic than some of the blue-sky thinking ideas which are scattered throughout the exhibition halls.

Of course, this should not really be that much of a surprise. The idea of interactive or supplementary content being built into platforms is just one step along from how many younger generations consume content today. It isn’t a single point of consumption, its multiple screens, complimentary experiences and a variety of simultaneous touch-points.

Research from YuMe and Nielsen suggests the trend for adults who use their smartphone or laptop while watching TV content is increasing each year. For 2018, 187.3 million US adults admitted to using multiple screens simultaneously, up 6.4% from the year before. Users want more ways to engage with content and building interactive opportunities into content platforms is certainly one way to apply this trend in the real-world.

HTC taps Orange for new CEO

Struggling Taiwanese device maker HTC has finally found a full-time CEO by tapping into the European telecoms scene.

Former Orange exec Yves Maitre (pictured, no relation) takes over as CEO with immediate effect. He replaces owner and Chairwoman Cher Wang, who stepped in as CEO more than four years ago after deciding to throw in the towel on smartphones.  Wang has spent that time pivoting HTC towards virtual reality and the Vive headset, as well as some other connected devices.

Maitre was most recently EVP of Consumer Equipment and Partnerships at Orange was well as being a member of Orange’s innovation technology group, with a focus developing disruptive revenue opportunities, so his appointment is consistent with HTC’s new direction. Wang and the HTC board have clearly committed the company’s future to emerging mobile devices.

“When I took over as CEO four years ago, I set out to reinvent HTC as a complete ecosystem company and lay the foundations for the company to flourish across 5G and XR,” said Wang. “So, now is the perfect time to hand over the stewardship of HTC to a strong leader to guide us on the next stage of our journey.

“I am truly delighted that Yves is taking the reins; he has a long association with our company, and he shares our passion for innovation. I firmly believe Yves is the right leader to continue to lead HTC to its full potential.”

“HTC has long been a bellwether for new technology innovation and I’m honoured to be selected by the Board of Directors to lead the next phase of HTC,” said Maitre. “Across the world, HTC is recognized for its firsts across the mobile and XR space. I am incredibly energized to grow the future of both 5G and XR alongside HTC employees, customers and investors.  We will set out immediately to continue the transition from building the worlds’ best consumer hardware to also building complete services around them to make them easy to manage and deploy.”

XR refers to mixed reality, which covers all forms immersive digital experience, including augmented reality. The advent of 5G is a potential boon for this kind of tech, especially when the low-latency stuff starts to kick in, as it will enable wireless VR without the kind of lag that makes people throw up. Recruiting someone from the operator side appears to be an acknowledgement of that.

HTC was arguably the most successful Android smartphone maker initially, establishing close ties to Google and shipping in impressive volumes a decade ago. But then much bigger players like Samsung and Huawei got their acts together and HTC simply couldn’t compete with their deep pockets and economies of scale. It will attempt to replicate that feat with XR and hopefully will have a better strategy for fending off the big guys next time.

The number of commercial 5G devices almost tripled in Q2 – GSA

The latest data from the Global mobile Suppliers Association show the number of 5G devices being launched worldwide is accelerating rapidly.

If you take at look at the GSA data from the end of March only 19 vendors had announced forthcoming 5G devices, with 33 models officially confirmed. These numbers have now significantly increased, with the latest data showing 39 vendors have now announced upcoming devices and the number of officially confirmed devices has now nearly tripled, standing around 90.

Looking in depth at the recent data also provided by GSA, 28% of the 90 officially confirmed devices are phones (the number standing at 25). On top of that GSA found 23 CPR devices, 23 modules, seven hotspots with assorted dongles, routers and drones comprising the chasing pack. The devices contained 5G chipsets from just four vendors – Qualcomm, Mediatek, Samsung and Huawei, with Intel no longer in the game.

As expected, smartphone vendors have jumped on 5G for various marketing campaigns. The most conspicuous of these is Samsung, which released  the Galaxy S10 5G first in Korea on earlier this year and then in the UK on June the 7th . The S10, due to its 5G compatibility, has a wider array of VR and AR functions than other 4G phones. This new way to experience VR and AR is critical as it will reach further out towards the younger generations who enjoy mobile gaming or more specifically games like Pokémon GO and the more recent Harry Potter: Wizards Unite that heavily rely on the use of AR.

This latest batch of data from the GSA indicates the device ecosystem is fully ramping up its 5G output. How much of this is purely speculative rather than responding to specific demand is still unclear, but we should get the first lots of 5G device sales data before long, which will clarify things.

HTC debuts eye-tracking with enterprise VR launch

HTC has announced it is bringing its enterprise VR product to North America, after teasing executives at CES in January.

The product itself, Vive Pro Eye, is not cheap, $1,599, but features the latest in eye tracking technology with HTC claiming it is ‘setting a new standard’ for VR in the enterprise market. While the consumer VR segment has been relatively sluggish, despite the incredible promises made by technologists, though there does seem to be a bigger focus on enterprise in recent months.

The Vive Pro Eye follows up HTC’s Vive Pro which is already in the hands of various different enterprise customers throughout the world, introducing new features such as precision eye tracking software, deeper data analysis, new training environments and more intuitive user experiences.

And while some of the features might be considered excessive at the moment, there is always the potential to influence mainstream adoption.

“We’ve invested in VR technology to connect our fans to our game and deliver a new level of engagement through VR game competitions and in-ballpark attractions,” said Jamie Leece, SVP of Games and VR for Major League Baseball.

“By integrating eye tracking technology into Home Run Derby VR, we are able to transport this immersive baseball experience to any location without additional controllers needed. Our fans can simply operate menus by using their eyes.”

This is perhaps where the VR industry has fallen short of expectations over the first few years; cash conscious consumers do not have the funds to fulfil the promise. These are after all individuals who have been stung by various difference financial potholes over the last decade and might be hesitant to invest so handsomely in such an unproven technology.

The focus on enterprise is a much more sensible bet for many of the VR enthusiasts to follow. Firstly, in working with organizations like Major League Baseball, new applications can be created, and experiential experiences can be offered to consumers at the games. This might have a normalising impact for the technology on the mass market.

Secondly, there is a lot more money in the enterprise world than in the individual’s wallet, with decision makers much more enthusiastic about investments when it isn’t linked directly to their bank accounts.

Finally, there are more usecases in the enterprise world. Some of them might be boring, but they are realistic and important for the companies involved. Training exercises are an excellent example.

What this product also bringing into the equation is eye-tracking software, offering an entirely new element for developers to consider.

“Our virtual venues come to life as individual audience members can react with various animations when a user makes direct eye contact with them,” said Jeff Marshall, CEO of Ovation, a company which uses VR to help media train customers in public speaking environments.

“As a developer, there’s just no going back once you’ve seen all that eye tracking makes possible.”

From an experience perspective, the eye-tracking software can also add to the gaming world. Foveated rendering is a graphics-rendering technique which uses an eye tracker integrated which helps reduce rendering workload by reducing the image quality in the peripheral vision. By focusing processing power where it is needed most, the strain placed on the device and experience is lessened.

Many have suggested this technology could be at the forefront of the next generation of VR devices, both in the consumer and enterprise world. Whether this is enough to force the potential of VR from promise to reality remains to be seen, but something needs to be done.

SK Telecom is bolstering 5G launch with rich content

South Korea’s largest mobile operator will switch on 5G service for consumers on Friday and has plenty of goodies for consumers to fill the bandwidth with.

After publishing its 5G service packages for consumers, SK Telecom (SKT) announced that it is beefing up content, from streamed games to HD and VR videos, that the 5G users can choose from. In a press release the company claimed it has secured around 8,000 different content titles.

A special section for 5G called “SKT 5GX” is set up in SKT’s OTT video service that would include VR video (concert, city and museum tours), 5G MAX (IMAX-like experience), and UHD content (dramas, entertainment shows and music videos in 4K and above). There on offer will also be VR and AR games as well as exclusive streaming games. Additionally, a social VR will enable “multiple users to watch baseball games together in a virtual reality environment.”

“The AR, VR and cloud games unveiled today only mark the beginning of the age of Hyper-Innovation brought by 5G,” said Park Jung-ho, the Chief Executive Officer of SK Telecom. “SK Telecom will continue to introduce 5G-based innovative services to lead all areas of New ICT.”

In order to promote the early adoption of 5G, SKT will zero-rate data for consuming the content from ‘SKT 5GX’ section of the OTT mobile video service, as well as provide up to 5GB of free data for users of its mobile games and VR games. The promotion will run till the end of June.

SKT said that it has rolled out 34,000 5G base stations covering 85 metropolises across the country as well as some hotspots like shopping centres, metro lines in the greater Seoul region, etc., and is planning to expand the coverage to all the metro lines in the country, as well as the national parks and festival sites. The company has excluded Huawei from its 5G business and has been working with Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung.

Is the VR market primed to pluck?

For all the promise of virtual reality (VR) the consumer appetite remains as somewhat of an unknown. Theoretically the technology could revolutionise the entertainment space, but we’re currently in a bit of a waiting game.

HTC is ready to gamble the consumer appetite, supporting ecosystem and product portfolio has evolved to such a position to provide the fuel for a subscription-based library of premium VR content.

“We have built a new model for VR that shines a light on the great library of VR content this industry has developed and gives users a reason to spend more time in headset than ever before,” said Rikard Steiber, President of Viveport.

“At the same time, we’re increasing developer reach and potential revenue as more developers can monetize a single Infinity user. We believe this model matches how consumers want to experience VR”

In pursuit of simplicity, Viveport is effectively a ‘Netflix for VR’. Customers can either pay $12.99 a month or $99 a year to access a VR content library with more than 600 titles already listed. As with other subscription models such as Netflix for content and Spotify for music, customers will have unlimited access to all content hosted on the platform.

However, you still have to answer the question as to whether the VR segment is ready to deliver the much-anticipated riches.

For the profits to be made, three criteria have to be satisfied. Firstly, is there an ecosystem which is creating enough volume of content, wide enough variety and immersive enough experiences. Secondly, is the hardware priced to allow the opportunity to generate mass market penetration. And finally, is there enough demand from the consumer.

With 600 titles already listed on the platform, this would suggest there is a large enough ecosystem in place to create the content. HTC is promising more titles, as well as some co-ordinated launches such as ‘Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs’. Secondly, the price of VR headsets has been coming down recently, and while it is still expensive, it is not prohibitively so. Consumers can spend thousands at the top end, but then again Google Daydream View can be purchased for £69. The breadth of products is now available to make this segment potentially viable.

The final criterion is the consumer appetite. This is incredibly difficult to gauge without launching a product, but as long as there are early adopters it is a good time to launch. Let’s not forget, Netflix was not an immediate success, it took time to develop the monstrous subscription base it has today, but it steadily attracted more and more thanks to it being first to market, while also offering an affordable (and very good) experience. Much of this was done through word of mouth.

Another lesson which HTC will have to learn is that enough is never enough. Netflix has maintained it position as the leader in the content world because it is constantly driving for more. Last year, the team spend almost $8 billion on content acquisition and creation, a number which will drastically increase this year. Not only is Netflix funding bigger-budget productions, but it is also expanding the local content libraries around the world. With Viveport, HTC could do the same, but it needs to ensure it is constantly expanding.

HTC has crafted itself a leadership position in the VR world, and the raw materials are currently in place to make this a profitable segment. Add improved connectivity with fibre penetration increasing and 4G constantly improving to the above three criteria, and HTC could be onto a winner.

Who knows, maybe in a few years’ time we’ll be referencing Viveport as the heavyweight of the entertainment space, not Netflix.

5G reaches an anticlimax at MWC 2019

After years of fooling around 5G finally arrived at this year’s big telecoms coming-together, but now a lot of people just feel disappointed and used, and are left asking “is that it?”

The hype cycle for 5G seems to have been especially prolonged and intense, arguably exceeding even the utopian fervour of the build up to 3G, which left the operator industry so over-committed and under-rewarded. 4G was mainly about doing mobile broadband properly, but 5G was supposed to revolutionise the telecoms industry. At this early stage, however, there is little sign of that.

In hindsight the build up to the show offered a strong indicator of the anticlimax to follow. The big kit vendor announcements were all about fine-tuning their 5G propositions and playing it safe. That was certainly the case with Ericsson and Huawei, while Nokia didn’t even have a pre-show event, contenting itself with just a webcast.

Nokia does have a major event in Barcelona on the Sunday of the show and, while it went big on 5G, the most it had to show for it commercially at this early stage was fixed wireless access. 5G offers the opportunity to provide high speed broadband to locations that can’t get a decent fixed-line service, for whatever reason, but even Nokia’s own forecasts aren’t especially bullish about the FWA total available market. So it feels more like an early way for operator CTOs to show some ROI from their 5G capex.

With the exception of a juicy bit of M&A action, Ericsson’s MWC event felt a bit flat. Meanwhile Huawei can’t escape the backdrop of the geopolitical spat it has found itself in the middle of, and almost seems ready to give up on some western markets entirely. At least one operator CEO reckons it would be disastrous for the industry if it did. A major theme of the show has been hacks trying in vain to get juicy quotes from anyone on the Huawei situation.

Aside from a bit of light FWA most of the 5G buzz has been generated by the arrival of 5G phones. The fact that some of them also come in a novel new foldable format just adds to the intrigue but those are far too expensive to be considered anything more than public prototypes and, anyway, where are the 5G networks for them to connect to?

To investigate why the arrival of 5G has elicited such a collective ‘meh’ from the industry we need to look at the three main technological subsets that are generally considered to comprise it. They are: Enhanced Mobile Broadband, Massive Machine-type Communications and Ultra-Reliable/Low-Latency Communications. These are illustrated in the slide below from a recent presentation given by Interdigital, which is already wondering what’s next for 5G, as is Qualcomm if the the photo taken of its stand above is anything to go by.

Interdigital 5G slide

EMBB is essentially more 4G, in so much as it’s essentially a fatter pipe, enabling faster data transfer rates. The problem is there is currently little need for 1 Gbps+ mobile broadband data rates and 5G cheerleaders are reduced to banging on about streaming 4K video, which is completely pointless on a mobile device anyway since the screens are too small to make use of it.

MMTC is otherwise known as IoT and, while it has massive potential, it’s debatable how accurate it is to describe it as a 5G technology. IoT has been progressing just fine without 5G and the standardisation process is largely independent of it. Furthermore some IoT applications can even be satisfied by 2G, so it’s not plausible to position IoT as the killer app for 5G.

The really novel, disruptive technology promised by 5G is the low-latency/ultra-reliable play. At first, talk of latency and reliability seems very technical and dry, but when you start to see some of the opportunities offered by removing the delay in transmitting a signal from one point to another, no matter how far apart they are, you get a sense of the full potential of this aspect of 5G.

On the Ericsson stand we bumped into our old friend Professor Mischa Dohler, who at MWC 2017 felt moved to defend the potential of 5G-enabled remote surgery, after we had used it as an illustration of how ahead of itself the industry had become over 5G. Dohler confirmed our suspicion that low-latency is where the real action is going to be, and pointed us towards the very cool video below of him duetting with his daughter over 5G while they were 1,000 kilometres apart.

 

Another cool low-latency use-case was provided by Javier Polo, Luis Fernando Fernandez and Juancho Carillo of Spanish cloud gaming specialist PlayGiga. They had a demo showing how cloud virtual reality is made possible by the low-latency capability of 5G and spoke about its importance for mobile cloud gaming in general.

playgiga vr demo

In fact once you eliminate the delay you can bring the cloud into play in all sorts of new ways. Speaking to Alan Carlton of Interdigital, who delivered the aforementioned presentation, we explored a future in which every screen is effectively a thin client that anyone can log into and use as their own device, with all their stuff accessed instantly from the cloud. That could be truly disruptive, while at the same time massively commoditising the devices market.

So we have to concede that the 5G low-latency angle is exciting, but before you think we’ve completely contradicted ourselves over the course of this piece bear in mind that we’re nowhere near seeing it in a commercial environment. Meanwhile we’re even further away from the kind of 5G base station ubiquity you would need to make this low-latency driven all-encompassing cloud into existence.

The sense of antixclimax this year is a product of the telecoms industry’s usual vice of over-promising. Yes, 5G is finally here in its earliest form, but we’re probably still five years from having the kind of infrastructure that can support any of these utopian scenarios. So this year we have FWA and the first devices, but unless each subsequent MWC is accompanied by at least one major new 5G-enabled use-case they risk feeling as anticlimactic as this one. If we’re not careful, everyone will get bored and move onto 6G instead.

Lastly we should also give a special shout out to Nokia, who provide great facilities for us hacks at the show regardless of how much trouble we cause them, and from whose stand this piece was written, fuelled by excellent connectivity and miniature multi-coloured sandwiches. They give good press room.

Almost one zettabyte of mobile data traffic in 2022 – Cisco

Cisco forecasts that 5G connections will go from nothing in 2017 to 3.4% of the global total in 2022. Over the same period annual mobile data traffic will reach 930 exabytes, a seven-fold growth.

The report provides plenty of valuable data points for the industry, both of records of recent history and predictions of the near future. For example, despite the expected fast growth of 5G, by 2022, 4G will continue to dominate both the number of connections and the data generated. 54% of total connections will be on 4G, which will generate 71% of total mobile data traffic. Mobile data traffic will represent 20% of all IP traffic by 2022.

With regard to data traffic by individual devices, on average a smartphone will generate 11 GB of traffic per month by 2022, up from 2GB in 2017. Mobile video will be responsible for even higher proportion of the total traffic. 59% of the total mobile data was video in 2017. This number will grow up to 79% by 2022, and the absolute data volume of mobile video will increase by nine times.Cisco VNI monthly data volume

The report identifies seven key global mobile networking trends, from Cisco’s perspective.

  1. Evolving toward Smarter Mobile Devices: this largely refers to the high and increasing percentage of smartphones, including phablets, in all the connected devices (from 50% to 54%), as well as the fast growth of M2M connections (from 11% to 31%). Main segment losing out will be non-smartphones (from 34% to 10%).
  2. Defining Cell Network Advances: this trend refers to the accelerated growth of mobile connections on newer technologies (4G and 5G) in contrast to the fast decline of the number of 2G connections and the gradual decline of 3G connections. Another fast-growing segment is M2M on Low-Power Wide-Area (LPWA) networks, increasing from 130 million in 2017 to 1.8 billion by 2022. Cisco VNI connections by technology
  3. Measuring Mobile IoT Adoption: captured in this trend is the continued growth of M2M and wearable connections. Globally, M2M connections will grow from just under 1 billion in 2017 to 3.9 billion by 2022, a CAGR of 32%. Wearables are treated as a subset of M2M connections by Cisco. The report forecasts 1.1 billion wearable devices globally by 2022, more than double the volume of 526 million in 2017, with a CAGR of 16%. Among them, 10% will have embedded cellular connectivity, up from 4% in 2017.
  4. Expanding Role and Coverage of Wi-Fi: the volume of mobile data may be big, but the volume of mobile data going through Wi-Fi offload is even bigger. The report forecasts that 59% of all data from mobile connected devices will be offloaded to Wi-Fi in 2022, amounting to 111.4 exabytes per month, up from 54% offload, or 13.4 exabytes per month in 2017. To enable the fast growth of offload data volume, the report forecasts, there will also need to have much more Wi-Fi hotspots. It estimates that Wi-Fi hotspots (including homespots) will grow from 124 million in 2017 to 549 million by 2022.
  5. Identifying New Mobile Applications and Requirements: in addition to video being the application category that generates the lion’s share of total mobile data traffic, VR, AR and Mixed Reality are also expected to experience a fast growth in the coming years. Globally, augmented and virtual reality traffic will grow from 22 petabytes per month in 2017 to 254 petabytes per month in 2022.
  6. Comparing Mobile Network Speed Improvements: the speed of mobile data is determined by both the networks and devices. In particular with the accelerated 5G rollout in the forecast period, the report expects to see the average speed of mobile network connection to increase from 8.7 Mbps in 2017 to 41.6 Mbps in 2022. The speeds also vary vastly between technologies. While the average 4G speed is expected to grow from 30 Mbps in 2017 to 44 Mbps in 2022, the average 5G speed will increase from 76 Mbps in 2019 to 170 Mbps in 2022. Cisco VNI speed by technology
  7. Reviewing Tiered Pricing, Unlimited Data and Shared Plans: the final trend examines what impact operators’ data packages and tiered pricing schemes will have on customers’ data consumption patterns. One interesting finding is that, a combined effect of all users increasing their data usage and more operators reintroducing data package cap has driven the proportion of data generated by the top 1% of users down from 52% in 2010 to only 6% in 2018.

The Visual Networking Index is produced by combining Cisco’s proprietary data and assumptions with that published by professional research firms as well as by the ITU.

Premier League giants take baby steps toward digital economy

If you’ve ever been on any sports’ club website you would be forgiven for thinking these guys are technophobes, but Intel is predicting a new era for sports broadcasting and fan engagement.

“We’re going to find ourselves in a couple of years’ time looking back and wondering how we ever got by,” said XXX of Intel.

The sports industry, and football in particular, has never really been at the forefront of technology. For an industry which defines itself, and almost entirely depends, on fan engagement little has been done to embrace new technologies and ideas. However, the last couple of years have seen a few rays of hope.

A couple of the more innovative clubs in the football industry, ones who just so happened to be partners of Intel, featured on a panel session to discuss the glaringly obvious opportunities which are being presented to sport clubs and the progress being made in shifting incredibly traditional businesses.

“We have been seeing a convergence of technology and sport and this has been accelerating over the last few years,” said Damian Willoughby, SVP Partnerships at Manchester City FC.

“Technology is impacting all of us and from our perspective, we are looking at how we can create fan engagement or fan experience, whether it is at Anfield or anywhere around the world,” said Billy Hogan, Chief Commercial Officer at Liverpool.

“What isn’t changing is the popularity of the English Premier League,” said Peter Silverstone, Commercial Director of Arsenal. “What is changing is the consumer appetite for how they consume the English Premier League as a product.”

What you have to take into consideration, and why it is so baffling that football clubs and the industry on the whole have been so slow to react to new technologies, is the global reach. The English Premier League (EPL) official Facebook and Twitter pages have 42 million and 18 million followers respectively. Another 23 million follow the competition on Instagram.

Below you can see the social media reach of each of the clubs on show during the event:

Club Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube
Liverpool 32.2 million 11 million 12.4 million 1.1 million
Arsenal 36.9 million 14 million 13.3 million 1.1 million
Man City 36.7 million 6.6 million 10.4 million 1.6 million

This is a truly global industry and while these numbers are certainly impressive, the challenge now is how to best capitalise on such significant assets. This is where the Intel partnership and content play a role.

As all three of the executives point out, the idea behind technology implementation is to offer a greater variety of ways for fans to consume content. This might be through virtual reality, player POV footage, more in-depth analysis, behind the scenes content or partners stories. The idea is to create content which came be customisable, interactive and varied. Each user can create their own story on-demand, building interactions which are more suited to them.

Looking at Intel’s True View product, one of the technologies which will be used to deliver this enhanced experience, XXX highlighted 38 5K sensors will be installed in each stadium, allowing the team to capture footage which is eight times the definition of HD. The cameras capture volumetric data (height, width, and depth) using voxels, a 3D pixel, delivering a new experience for the consumer.

Collecting this data will allow the three clubs to introduce 360 degrees replays, allowing the consumer to decide how the content is viewed, player POV footage and new content on laser wall screens. Intel believe this sort of technology is addressing a supply/demand chasm in the market; consumers are demanding a different type of experience, yet few in the world of sports seem able to deliver it.

Creating all of these experiences has another excellent impact on these clubs; it allows them to match the globalised nature of football. The worldwide footprint of the Premier League is pretty unmatched in the entirety of sports, especially over the last decade with clubs targeting fans on distant shores. These are three clubs which have certainly fit this mould.

“Some of these people will never get the chance to go to Anfield, but we can deliver this experience,” said Hogan, referencing fans in Indonesia, China and the US.

Although there certainly have been positive steps forward in converging the worlds of technology and sport, this is only the beginning. Looking forward, there are some genuinely exciting technologies in the pipeline, each of which has the potential to completely revolutionise the experience.

Virtual reality is one which is constantly discussed, and while there might be some applications and hardware on the market which offer some sort of experience, this is only the tip of the iceberg. VR is very much an embryonic technology for the moment, though the fast decreasing price of hardware and the approaching 5G euphoria could take this technology to the next level.

Another area to consider is the delivery of content through holograms. A couple of months back Vodafone delivered one of the best 5G demos we’ve seen, live-streaming a hologram from Manchester to its Newbury HQ of England Women’s football captain Steph Houghton. The image was crisp while latency was pretty much non-existent. Slumbering journalists very bolted upright by genuine innovation.

Imagine sitting in your living room and experiencing a Premier League Football game as if you were sat on the halfway line and seeing replays through the eyes of the players. Or how about a boxing match hosted in Las Vegas, but live-streaming holograms to hundreds of venues throughout the world. The viewing experience could be completely revolutionised.

What these three clubs are doing are the first baby steps into digital transformation, a buzzword which has plagued us for years. However, it might not be too long before the sports entertainment world morphs into a completely unrecognisable beast.

Who’s got the stones to buy Netflix?

Apple, Disney, Microsoft or Apple; one of the biggest questions which has circled the technology industry over the last couple of years is who could possibly acquire Netflix?

The streaming giant, Wall Street’s darling, has almost constantly been talked up as an acquisition target. However, another year has passed and it’s another year where no-one managed to capture the content beast. You have to start to wonder whether it will ever happen, but here we’re going to have a look at who might be in the running.

Netflix numbersWith subscriptions totalling more than 148 million, 2018 revenues exceeding $15.7 billion and operating income up to $1.6 billion, Netflix would certainly be a useful addition to any company. However, with market capitalisation now roughly $143 billion and debt which would make your eyes water, an acquisition would be a scary prospect for almost everyone.

First and foremost, let’s have a look at some of the players who might have been in the equation, but alas, no more.

Disney has been a rumoured acquirer for almost as long as Netflix existed. This is an incredibly successful company, but no-one is immune to the shift tides of the global economy and consumer behaviour. Getting in on the internet craze is something which should be considered critical to Disney, and Netflix would have given them a direct-to-consumer channel. However, there was always a feeling Disney would develop its own proposition organically and this turned out to be the case.

AT&T is another company which might have been in the fray, but its Time Warner acquisition satisfied the content needs of the business. All telcos are searching to get in on the content cash, developing converged offerings, and AT&T is a company which certainly has a big bank account. As mentioned above, the acquisition of Time Warner completes rules this business out.

There are of course others who might have been interested in acquiring the streaming giant, but for various reasons they would not be considered today. Either it would be way too expensive, wouldn’t fit into the company’s objectives or there is already a streaming service present. But now onto the interesting stuff, who could be in the running.

Microsoft logo

Microsoft

From doom to gloom, CEO Satya Nadella has certainly turned fortunes around at Microsoft. Only a few years ago, Microsoft was a shadow of its former self as the declining PC industry hit home hard. A disastrous venture into the world of smartphones was a slight detour but under the cloud-orientated leadership of Nadella, Microsoft is back as a lean, mean tech heavyweight.

Alongside the cloud computing business, Microsoft has also successfully lead the Xbox brand into the digital era. Not only is the platform increasingly evolving into an online gaming landscape, but it also lends itself well to sit alongside the Netflix business. If Microsoft wants to compete with Amazon across the entire digital ecosystem, both consumer and enterprise, it will need to expand the business into more consumer channels.

For Netflix, this might be an interesting tie up as well. Netflix is a business which operates through a single revenue stream at the moment, entertainment, and might be keen to look at new avenues. Gaming and eSports are two segments which align well with Netflix, opening up some interesting synergies with Microsoft’s consumer business.

“Microsoft is at a crossroads,” said independent telco, media and tech analyst Paolo Pescatore. “Its rivals have made big moves in video and it needs to follow suit. The acquisition addresses this and complements its efforts with Xbox. The move also strengthens its growing aspirations in the cloud with Azure, firmly positioning itself against Amazon with AWS and Prime video.”

However, while this is a company which could potentially afford to buy Netflix, you have to wonder whether it actually will. The Netflix culture does not necessarily align with Microsoft, and while diversification into new channels is always attractive, it might be considered too much of a distraction from the cloud computing mission. Nadella has already stated he is targeting the edge computing and AI segments, and considering the bounties on offer there, why bother entertaining an expensive distraction.

Apple Store on 5th Avenue, New York City

Apple

Apple is another company which has billions floating in free cash and assets which could be used to leverage any transaction. It is also a company which has struggled to make any effective mark on the content world, excluding iTunes success. With Netflix, Apple could purchase a very successful brand, broadening the horizons of the business.

The last couple of months have shown Apple is not immune to the dampened smartphone trends. Sales are not roaring the same way they were during yesteryear, perhaps because there has been so little innovation in the segment for years. The last genuine disruption for devices probably came from Apple a decade ago when it ditched the keyboard. Arguably everything else has just been incremental change, while prices are sky-rocketing; the consumer feels abused.

To compensate for the slowdown, CEO Tim Cook has been talking up the software and services business unit. While this has been successful, it seems not enough for investors. Netflix would offer a perfect opportunity for Apple to diversify and tap into the recurring revenues pot which everyone wants to grab.

However, Netflix is a service for anyone and everyone. Apple has traditionally tied services into Apple devices. At CES, we saw the firm expand into openness with new partnerships, but this might be a step too far. Another condemning argument is Apple generally likes to build business organically, or at least acquire to bolster existing products. This would stomp all over this concept.

Alibaba Logo

Alibaba

A Chinese company which has been tearing up trees in the domestic market but struggled to impose itself on the international space, Alibaba has been hoping to replicate the Huawei playbook to dominate the world, but no-where near as successfully.

Perhaps an internationally renowned business is exactly what Alibaba needs to establish itself on the international space. But what is worth noting is this relationship could head the other direction as well; Netflix wouldn’t mind capitalising on the Chinese market.

As with any international business a local business partner is needed to trade in China. Alibaba, with its broad reach across the vast country, could prove to be a very interesting playmate. With Netflix’s Eastern ambitions and Alibaba’s Western dreams, there certainly is dovetail potential.

However, it is very difficult to believe the current US political administration would entertain this idea. Aside from aggression and antagonistic actions, the White House has form in blocking acquisitions which would benefit China, see Broadcom’s attempted acquisition of Qualcomm. This is a completely different argument and segment but considering the escalating trade war between the US and China, it is hard to see any tie up between these two internet giants.

Google Logo

Google

If you’re going to talk about a monstrous acquisition in Silicon Valley, it’s difficult not to mention Google. This is one of the most influential and successful businesses on the planet with cash to burn. And there might just be interest in acquiring Netflix.

Time and time again, Google has shown it is not scared of spending money, a prime example of this is the acquisition of YouTube for $1.65 billion. This might seem like pocket change today, but back in 2006 this was big cash. It seemed like a ridiculous bet for years, but who is laughing now?

The issue with YouTube is the business model. Its advertiser led, open to all and recently there have been some PR blunders with the advert/content alignment. Some content companies have actively avoided the platform, while attempts to create a subscription business have been unsuccessful. This is where Netflix could fit in.

“Google has made numerous failed attempts to crack the paid online video landscape,” said Pescatore. “Content and media owners no longer want to devalue their prized assets by giving it away on YouTube. Acquiring Netflix gives Google a sizeable subscriber base and greater credibility with content and media owners.”

Where there is an opportunity to make money, Google is not scared about big cash outlays. Yes, Netflix is a massive purchase, and there is a lot of debt to consider, but Google is an adventurous and bold enough company to make this work.

However, you have to question whether the US competition authorities would allow two of the largest content platforms to be owned by the same company. There might not necessarily be any direct overlap, but this is a lot of influence to have in one place. Authorities don’t generally like this idea.

Verizon Logo

Verizon

Could Verizon borrow a page from the AT&T playbook and go big on a content acquisition? Perhaps it will struggle to justify the expense to investors, but this one might make sense.

Verizon has been attempting to force its way into the diversification game and so far, it has been a disaster. While AT&T bought Game of Thrones, Verizon went after Yahoo to challenge the likes of Google and Facebook for advertising dollars. A couple of data breaches later, the content and media vision looks like a shambles. Hindsight is always 20/20 but this was a terrible decision.

However, with a 5G rollout to consider, fixed broadband ambitions and burnt fingers from the last content acquisition, you have to wonder whether the team has the stomach to take on such a massive task. Verizon as a business is nothing like Netflix and despite the attractive recurring revenues and value-add opportunities, the integration would be a nightmare. The headache might not be worth the reward.

You also have to wonder whether the telco would be scared off by some of the bold decisions made from a content perspective. Telcos on the whole are quite risk-adverse organizations, something which Netflix certainly isn’t. How many people would have taken a risk and funded content like Stranger Things? And with the release of Bandersnatch, Netflix is entering the new domain of interactive content. You have to be brave and accept considerable risk to make such bets work; we can’t see Verizon adopting this mentality.

Softbank Logo

Softbank Vision Fund

Another with telco heritage, but this is a completely different story.

A couple of years back, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son had a ridiculous idea which was mocked by many. The creation of a $100 billion investment fund which he would manage seemed unimaginable, but he found the backers, made it profitable and then started up a second-one.

Son is a man to knows how to make money and has the right connections to raise funds for future wonderful ideas. Buying Netflix might sound like an absurd idea, but this is one place we could really see it working.

However, the issue here is the business itself. While Son might be interested in digital ventures which are capable of making profits, the aim of the funds have mainly been directed towards artificial intelligence. Even if Son and his team have bought into other business segments, they are more enterprise orientated. There are smaller bets which have been directed towards the consumer market, but would require an investment on another level.

Tencent Logo

Tencent

Another Chinese company which has big ambitions on the global stage.

This is a business which has been incredibly successful in the Chinese market and used assets effectively in the international markets as well. The purchase of both Epic Games and Supercell have spread the influence of the business further across the world and numerous quarterly results have shown just how strong Tencent’s credentials are in the digital economy.

Tencent would most likely be able to raise the funds to purchase the monster Netflix, while the gaming and entertainment portfolio would work well alongside the streaming brand. Cross selling would be an option, as would embedding more varied content on different platforms. It could be a match made in heaven.

However, you have to bear in mind this is a Chinese company and the political climate is not necessarily in the frame to consider such as transaction. Like Alibaba, Tencent might be viewed as too close to the Chinese government.

No-one

This is an option which is looking increasingly likely. Not only will the business cost a huge amount of money, perhaps a 30-40% premium on market capitalisation, the acquirer will also have to swallow all the debt built-up over the years. There will also have to be enough cash to fuel the content ambitions of Netflix, it reportedly spend $7.5 billion on content last year.

Finally, the acquirer would also have to convince Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, as well as the shareholders, that selling up is the best option.

“If I was a shareholder or Reed Hastings, I’d be wondering whether it is better to be owned by someone else or just carry on what we’re doing now,” said Ed Barton, Practise Lead at Ovum.

“These guys are going down in business school history for what they have done with Netflix already, do they need to sell out to someone else?”

Netflix is growing very quickly and now bringing in some notable profits. The most interesting thing about this business is the potential as well. The US market might be highly saturated, but the international potential is massive. Many countries around the world, most notably in Asia, are just beginning to experience the Netflix euphoria meaning the growth ceiling is still years away.

What this international potential offers Netflix is time, time to explore new opportunities, convergence and diversification. Any business with a single revenue stream, Netflix is solely reliant on subscriptions, sits in a precarious position, but with international growth filling the coffers the team have time to organically create new business streams.

Ultimately, Hastings and his management team have to ask themselves a simple question; is it better to control our own fate or answer to someone else for a bumper payday? We suspect Hastings’ bank account is already bursting and this is a man who is driven by ambition, the need to be the biggest and best, breaking boundaries and creating the unthinkable.

Most of these suitors will probably be thinking they should have acquired Netflix years ago, when the price was a bit more palatable, but would they have been able to drive the same success as Hastings has done flying solo? We suspect not.