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From Platform Wars to Virtualization, Five Tech Trends to Watch in 2021

Crystal ball
(Image credit: Future)

 With 2020 mercifully winding down and a virtualized version of CES about to ramp up, it’s a good time to look at the gadgets and software platforms that will matter most in the year ahead.

At this time last year, Multichannel News predicted relevance for 5G-capable smartphones and WiFi 6-compatible home network gateways, and of course, the obvious ramped-up competition for subscription streaming, all of which became manifest over the past 12 months. 

If we were truly prescient, we might have devoted a paragraph or two to remote conferencing software. But hindsight is 20/20.

So what will the big technology topics be this year? Here are five we think we’ll be covering quite a bit. 

The ‘Platform Wars’ will only intensify: We heard a lot about the so-called streaming wars in 2020, and how the inclusion of Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, Peacock and HBO Max were going to put competitive pressure on Netflix. 

It soon became apparent that the race for platform supremacy was just as intense, with all of the relevant subscription VOD, AVOD and vMVPD combatants relying on Roku, Amazon, Google, Apple and other over-the-top gatekeepers to reach their consumers. 

ALSO READ: Discovery Plus to Explore Challenging SVOD Biz with Lofty 70 Million Subscriber Goal

The competition among the streaming gatekeepers will only heat up in 2021. Roku has seen its market capitalization double in recent months to surpass $40 billion, and it’s now making more money selling advertising than hardware, Roku can now afford to turn its OTT gadgets into loss leaders at retail, selling them on the ultra-cheap (below $20) and further proliferating its leadership position in the connected-TV device world.

Hot on Roku’s heels, touting a similarly robust 40 million active users worldwide, Amazon will continue to integrate its Fire TV OS into almost every home control and automation device it sells, while also peddling inexpensive OTT gadgets such as HDMI streaming sticks.

The wild card will be the emergence of Google and its Android TV/Google TV OS. Google plans on investing heavily in 2021 to join Roku and Amazon at the table of serious global OTT device platform operators. 

“What makes Google such a dangerous entrant into the TV OS/device space is that they do not need to make money (at least today) on taking a cut of connected TV ad inventory or a share of new SVOD subscriptions,” LightShed Ventures general partner Rich Greenfield said in a recent analyst note. 

More OTT ‘carriage’ disputes:  With their growing clout, and decreased neutrality in terms of what gets streamed on their platforms, Roku and Amazon will certainly be involved in more distribution skirmishes in 2021.

Roku added HBO Max just last week, while Amazon Fire TV still doesn’t offer NBCU’s Peacock. Roku also just made the Spectrum TV app unavailable to its users, as it is still negotiating a new distribution deal with Charter Communications. 

Notably, Discovery didn’t specifically say it had deals with Roku, the No. 1 OTT platform, or No. 2 Amazon when it announced its new Discovery Plus SVOD Platform.  And with CBS All Access just as entrenched in the channels business of Roku and Amazon as HBO ever was, what are the chances that ViacomCBS will launch the broadened Paramount Plus with ubiquitous app support?

Expect big, surprising new smart TV partnerships: If you think gateway operators like Roku and Google wield a lot of power now, just wait until one of them reaches what Liberty Media chairman John Malone recently said is the magic number of subscribers to truly control the market — around 100 million active users. 

The key to achieving that benchmark is tie-ups with smart-TV makers. Roku, for example, emerged as the No. 1 OTT ecosystem in the U.S. thanks mainly to its highly successful marriage to China’s TCL, whose cheap 4KTVs have sold like gangbusters in the U.S. since 2017. Roku is now working with TCL to establish similar smart TV beachheads in Europe, but TCL is seeing other tech companies, evidence by a recent U.S. Android TV deal.

And there will be plenty of big smart-TV announcements in 2021. 

Comcast, for example, is looking to get its X1 platform into the smart-TV game with a potential collaboration with Walmart. And TiVo plans to leverage the established smart TV OEM business of its new parent company, Xperi, to put its Stream TV platform into sets starting in the latter half of 2021. 

4K/UHD will become ubiquitous:  Amid all the movement among platforms and service providers, emerging next-generation playback formats, such as 4K/UHD, HDR, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos will become more standard. 

ALSO READ: HBO Max Gets WarnerMedia’s Entire 2021 Film Slate Day and Date

Lost in all the hubbub about WarnerMedia releasing its entire 2021 theatrical slate day-and-date on HBO Max: All 17 of those movies will include each of the aforementioned technology features. 

To keep up, ops will invest in broadband: Controlling around 70% of the U.S. wireline internet service provider business entering 2020, cable operators were largely ready when the pandemic suddenly spiked broadband usage, with the amount of digital video sent over the internet — vocational and recreational — vastly increasing. 

Operators, who’d spent billions on DOCIS 3.1 upgrades, largely implemented tweaks and node splits that were part of the technology they already owned, and they kept up with demand. 

Analysts expect these companies to circle back to earlier planned broadband infrastructure upgrades in 2021, transitioning networks to software virtualization and distributed access architecture (DAA). Dell’Oro Group predicts that global spending on broadband access equipment will rebound by around 5% in 2021.