When Shailesh Prakash, chief information officer and executive vice-president of digital product development at The Washington Post, spoke to Mint on the sidelines of a newspaper conference in New Delhi last month, he underlined the importance of technology in content platforms quite forcefully. Counted among the people responsible for the American paper’s growing online audiences, he said while journalism at The Post has been excellent, there has been a huge focus on technology. The transition of a loss-making product into a profitable one could not have been possible without superlative design and technology. For their online products, publishers need to have the speed of Google, the beauty of Apple, and the convenience of Amazon, he said. Else, despite good journalism, consumers will switch to another site.

The same argument holds true for the more than 30 over-the-top (OTT) video streaming sites that are currently operational in India. They not only have to fight the content war, but also need to back it up with matchless technology. In a recent interview, Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings said that both content and technology are critical to the success of a platform. “We need great technology to be able to stream in any situation, to be able to download and then to have great stories," he said.

Given the significance of technology, Zee5 CEO Tarun Katial plans to revamp and re-launch the Zee5 app. He feels that the user interface and experience need to change. The new user interface will improve navigation, leading to better content discovery. Besides, it will be a lighter and faster app. Several studies show that when a consumer gets hooked to a user interface, he finds it difficult to shift to another brand.

Technology requires investment in three areas. First is the back end that comprises the servers, content ingestion, and encoding. The front end includes user interface. “Then, there is artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) which comprises recommendation engine, auto preview engine, and an optimization engine, which helps us hyper-personalize an app for each and every individual," says Katial.

“You cannot hyper-personalize the app manually at scale for about 80 million people (Zee5’s monthly active users)," he says. AI and data mining platforms need to understand every user, Katial says. “We measure hundreds of events…when you launched the app, when you touched the thumbnail or started a video and shut it. We are measuring you every nano second. Then we recommend packs or shows to you."

Clearly, there’s a fair amount of ongoing investment in technology which streaming platforms make. At Zee5, the ratio of investment in content versus technology is 60:40. The video, vernacular and voice trends in OTT that Katial likes to talk about are backed by technology. The video story is an interesting one as the device ecosystem has undergone a big change. “There is the Jio smartphone at the bottom end with 40 million users, a 8,000 TV at the other end, and all the Chinese phones in between," says Katial. Every phone has different memory and every consumer could be in a different network such as 3G or 4G. “So streaming has to serve you the video on an ongoing basis whether you are in a slow or fast network. The viewing has to be seamless. That is a big trend," says Katial. He says that people are watching video even on their feature phones.

What they are watching on such phones is vernacular content. Vernacular is very big, according to Katial, and the Zee5 app offers user interface in 12 languages. It also serves up content in all these languages. “This is the reality. India is not a homogenous country."

Lastly, voice search is growing big with both the young and old going for it. It is also popular with the lower-income strata. Zee5 offers voice search in 11 languages.

Karan Bedi, CEO at video streaming platform MX Player, believes in four main pillars of OTT—distribution, content, technology, and monetization. “The perfect mix of these creates a scalable and successful business. Content and technology are equally important in this equation and we invest heavily in both," he says.

MX Player boasts a large in-house tech team that has worked on deep compression and recommendation technology. In Bedi’s view, compression, discovery, personalization, and interactivity are the key areas of focus for his brand. “As consumption shifts to digital, the role of technology in creating a seamless, personalized, delightful experience for a consumer will be key," he says.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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