Experience from the set top box (STB) market makes us smarter and faster

October 21, 2020

Mikhail Grachev, CEO at SmartLabs, says that entering the set top box (STB) market was one of the biggest learning curves of his life: “When we first set out, we were focused on supplying middleware. To ensure the user interface runs smoothly, it needs to be deeply integrated into the STB as one of its component layers, but our middleware was being hampered by the STB vendors’ system software.

“We wanted to use 100% of the capability of the hardware but in several cases this just wasn’t possible. We were also facing situations where an operator was using two or three set top boxes, and for each we had to integrate our UI apps with different pieces of system software. We started to go deeper and deeper into STB system software, and then we realised that we had all necessary software for our own STB. We decided a more unified approach had a lot of benefits to our customers, so we decided to come up with our own offering to ensure we could push the tech as far as it would go and to streamline our capability.”

The product development was fast and in just a few months, the SmartLabs team had gone from product concept to manufacture. Mikhail says: “We have always been a company that has worked on the core technology in-house. We recruited a small, highly experienced team to manage the production and we worked with third-parties to handle logistics and quality control.”

SmartLabs was already working with some Rostelecom regional branches and used them to pilot the new boxes. Once the positive feedback started coming in, it was time to look further afield. Mikhail remembers this time as extremely stressful: “We were still a relatively small company then, and there were lots of costs and associated risks, but there were some really good lessons. I think it was this experience that forged SmartLabs’ approach to customisation.

“We really listened to our customer’s needs and made products that met those needs exactly. It also underlined our approach to recruitment, so we could find the best people not only to deliver but also discuss the requirements with a customer, informing and educating as to why a particular avenue would be better for them.”

Other manufacturers don’t usually do software and STBs are seen as a simple hardware issue. For Mikhail and SmartLabs, it is a blend of understanding the end customers’ needs, the operator’s requirements and the limits of the technology that sets the company apart.

He says the experience the company has is no match to other suppliers and there is no argument that SmartLabs understands live projects. Nowadays, the STB market is a fraction of SmartLabs’ offering, and IPTV and OTT services have become its mainstay. SmartLabs is responsible for over 6.5 million demanding customers that rely on its multi-screen, interactive offering through its STBs and apps, deployed in managed and unmanaged IP, Hybrid DVB+ IP and mobile networks.

“We understand hardware and software and have over a decade’s experience of working with Linux. Because of this, we have been able to work on lots of migration projects where customers are moving from legacy systems to Android with us as the software provider. We get this as it is part of our DNA. This understanding is deeper because of our experience with hardware.

“With one of our recent projects, the customer chose a cheaper STB vendor and we handled the software. It wasn’t long before they changed their mind and came to us for the STBs too. We work collaboratively with our customers and are able to offer a level of customisation that many providers can’t, because we understand the capability of both software and hardware. For any small to medium requirement, we are the perfect fit because of the customisation we can offer.

“We can also fit as a cog in a larger project, where we might just offer the software support and migration or unique functionality alongside a STB vendor. The secondary STB work may come later as our customers see where we can assist,” adds Mikhail.

SmartLabs sees listening, discussion and deliberation as key components of its service offering. Because of where it has come from, it is able to converse easily with customers to ascertain requirements and there is a level of value-add consultancy that is incorporated to ensure customers understand exactly what their systems can and cannot do.

Mikhail adds that these conversations are often very interesting as SmartLabs can challenge what a customer thinks will work, and what capability the technology has. “When you know your offering inside out, you are confident to point out a system’s weaknesses to a customer before the start of a build, especially when it will save them money.

“We find that our customers like our approach and they trust our knowledge because of our heritage. It also means we are very fast at delivering on requirements and getting a product to market. That’s based on experience too!”

Mikhail Grachev, CEO, Smartlabs

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