When I'm in China, I often feel as though I'm in a parallel universe. As global as the electronics industry has become, certain things remain distinctly regional. China's tablet and set-top markets are good examples.
Parallel universe for STB SoCs
Meanwhile, the same parallel universe characterizes the set-top box world. Over here in China, the so-called over-the-top (OTT) market has exploded as Internet companies like Alibaba have gone whole-hog with video services over the Internet. This dates back to the third quarter last year.
The OTT market is growing fast, according to Wu, with as many as 2 million OTT boxes sold in a month at its peak.
For Chinese consumers, there are three ways to receive digital video services. They're available on smart TVs, which cost around 10,000 RMB (US$1,630). Another route is OTT boxes, priced between 200 and 300 RMB ($33 to $49). The last option is an Android USB stick that you can plug into a TV, selling for between 100 and 200 RMB ($16 to $33).
To Chinese vendors comparing tablet SoCs with IP set-top SoCs, it's clear that key subsystems -- including CPU and GPU -- are already common. Allwinner is among many Chinese vendors leveraging their tablet SoCs to enter the exploding OTT market.
Of course, back in the USA, leading cable set-top chip vendors like Broadcom have a very different view of the set-top box market. When I chatted with Stephen Palm, senior technical director at Broadband Technology Group, this week, he pointed out that requirements in today's set-tops in the West are nothing like what current mobile SoCs are capable of handling.
With all the variant conditional access systems and hardware security keys required in the set-top SoC, "Our set-top box SoC is supporting 85 security protocols," Palm said. "For content owners, it's vitally important that their content is safely and uniquely delivered to subscribers' homes." STB SoCs are required to pass robustness rules imposed by security vendors.
Further, STB SoCs need to support a number of different video codecs ranging from MPEG2 to MPEG4 and H.265, Broadcom's Palm pointed out. "That's not necessarily the case with mobile SoCs."
Point well taken. But such robust and secure STB SoCs are still overkill for regions like China where every consumer seems to believe video services are free. Does Broadcom ever think about selling a stripped-down version of its chips in China?
Palm politely declined to answer the question, saying, "I'm not going to get into the discussion of which market Broadcom will or won't enter." Obviously, "regions that seem to care a little less" about copy protection represent a touchy subject. Because such regions exist in a parallel universe, they tend to overlook Western sensibilities about copyright and copy protection.
I certainly understand why chip vendors in the West avoid these low-margin markets where the rules of the game seem so different. But I wonder what will happen to Western chip companies when the membrane between our parallel universes springs a leak, and technologies start to trickle in both directions.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times