IT Life: Changing TV Channels

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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We chat to Steve Plunkett, CTO at Red Bee Media, about the evolution of TV, the cloud and predicting technological developments

Media management company Red Bee is based in West London, with 1,500 employees working in eight offices across the world. The company transmits over 120 television streams on digital terrestrial, digital satellite, cable, web and mobile channels, among them all the domestic BBC content.

It also manages the BBC iPlayer. Steve Plunkett is responsible for the company’s technology and innovation strategy worldwide, leading the product development, software engineering and design groups.

Prior to joining Red Bee, he was the chief architect of the Future Solutions Group at Motorola, with a focus on connected home, IPTV and advanced mobile devices. Overall, Steve has nearly 20 years of experience in technology, media and telecoms industries.

The state of flux

What does Red Bee do?
Our core business is the TV business. But TV is no longer the device in a corner of the room. It feels more like an application which is running on PCs, tablets, smartphones and games consoles. It’s evolving very rapidly, and the way we consume content and interact with it is also changing.

There are new forms of distribution emerging: catch-up, on-demand, events being streamed live online. YouTube handles something like 4 billion streams a day.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the traditional TV is going away, but we are time-shifting and place-shifting our viewing. Up until recently, we’ve been focusing on getting video to other devices.

Now these devices are not just used for watching, but as an alternative means of interaction. Concepts like the “second screen” allow us to make viewing more interesting. At the moment, we are doing a lot of experiments with Twitter.

What did you do before Red Bee?
I joined Motorola at the turn of the millennium and spent nine years working as part of a giant venture between Motorola and Cisco. We were researching ubiquitous wireless access on mobile devices, and developing new ways to use it. During this period I was focused on “the next big thing”, the evolution of the Internet.

What has been the favourite project in your work so far?
I tend to be very excited about whatever I’m working on at that point. The stuff that I’m doing right now at Red Bee – evolution of television, “second screen” – is very exciting. It will change watching experience for everyone.

I like working in a sector where there’s lots of technology disruption. My job is to try and identify areas of opportunity on behalf of the company, ways to take advantage and harness the power of technical changes. The TV world is currently going through some serious changes, and when I was working in mobile industry, it was doing the same thing.

Educated guessing

What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
It was related to wireless data transfer, in its very early stages. In 2002, we had mobile devices with low-res, monochrome screens, but we could see what was coming. Five years on, the iPhone was launched.

We were working on projects that assumed the existence of high-speed data connections, true Internet rather than WAP, large screens. There was a lot of educated guessing as to what products and services we should be developing.

What tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
We can be certain of some things. Television will be consumed across every screen, and the picture resolution will be a lot higher. We are talking way beyond HD. A lot of video content is already shot in 2K-4K resolution. It will take some time for the display technology to catch up.

In the mobile space, we will have high-speed, low-latency data as standard, and mobile connection will be the default source of Internet for many people. The smartphones themselves won’t change too much. After all, the size of the screen is limited by the size of your pocket.

Who’s your tech hero?
I’ll be a little bit boring and say Steve Jobs. He didn’t just predict the future, he invented the future. Sure, he had help from Steve Wozniak and many other talented people, but his contribution was extremely important.

He’s probably also one of the greatest tech villains. Some of his influence was very negative. According to what I’ve read, he made unreasonable demands from his staff, and had some personal characteristics that went to the extremes.

What’s your favourite technology ever made?
Mobile devices in their various incarnations, whether a phone or a tablet. It’s hard to imagine modern life without them. The combination of mobile computing, Internet on the go and cool gadgets makes it my favourite.

Adopt to survive

What is the financial state of the company?
We are growing. People want to invest in new technologies, new products. All of our internal investments are technology-related.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire most, and why?
It’s really difficult to select just one company. In broadcasting, I’m a big fan of Channel 4, and the way they embrace new ideas. At the same time, with the iPlayer, the BBC has set an international standard in terms of delivering online video.

Outside of broadcasting, I really like Amazon. What they have done for cloud computing with Amazon Web Services is amazing. It gave young start-ups the ability to create and develop ideas very quickly, without having to invest heavily in infrastructure.

If we talk about design, I like Apple products for their simplicity. But I also admire Microsoft, particularly the fact that they stuck with the Xbox when it was difficult, and now created an interesting entertainment ecosystem. Soon, they will launch SmartGlass, which is a “second screen” interface for the gaming console. And Kinect pretty much introduced motion control to the masses.

What’s the greatest challenge for an IT department today?
Over the last few years, there has been a serious shift in IT. The consumer technology we have at home has begun to surpass what we have in the office, which is a complete reversal of the situation we had ten years ago. And in the IT department, people are expecting more from the internal systems. There’s pressure to allow consumer devices in the workplace, because of increased awareness and use in private life. IT departments have to embrace change and abandon the role of the “gatekeeper”. The security perimeter which used to be aligned with the physical perimeter of your building is now dissolving.

To Cloud or not to Cloud?
The cloud is something every business should understand. The term is a little bit too generic, and almost meaningless. But these services allow you to use external infrastructure and experiment, solve very particular problems. They demand a different approach to security, development, integration. Any CTO should be knowledgeable about what is happening in this space.

You can draw parallels with the electricity industry a century ago, when every factory operated its own little power plant. People later understood that actually, every business doesn’t need its own power plant, and it’s best to leave it to those who can do it well, on a big scale. In computing, you don’t always need to build your own infrastructure.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
I vaguely remember I wanted to be a writer. But I was also very curious and used to dismantle things around the house. When we got a ZX Spectrum, I stated writing code, and never lost passion for technology. Maybe I will write a book when I’m retired.

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