When cellular telephony started in India, Bharti and Reliance took two divergent approaches towards launching cellular services — Airtel decided to focus on providing the services, leaving third party players to provide the hardware, while Reliance decided went with CDMA, a technology in which everything was more tightly controlled.
Despite the obvious technological shortcomings of the platform chosen by Airtel, it was the technologically inferior GSM standard that won the battle in India.
CDMA, despite offering cheaper rates, superior voice quality and faster data, failed to make much headway in India due to the tightly controlled ecosystem around it.
Fast forward 20 years, and the two telecom players seem to be facing off against each other again and taking somewhat similar approaches in targeting the emerging market for converged services — voice, data, video and TV.
While Reliance Jio will launch an on-deck, integrated bouquet of services starting this weekend, Airtel has unveiled a new, collaborative approach.
Airtel’s converged service will be called Xstream, and will come in four form-factors: It will be available on world wide web, an app, a smart stick and a set-top-box.
The key difference between the first three modes and the last one is that the box comes with support for Airtel DTH built-in.
Otherwise, the content, and the experience, are the same. The focus will be on video-on-demand, such as films, TV series and user generated content.
Like Jio’s Box, Airtel’s Xstream box will also provide content from a variety of third party providers such as ZEE5, Hooq, Hoi Choi, Eros Now, HungamaPlay, ShemarooMe, Ultra and Curiosity Stream.
But there’s a key difference between Airtel’s approach and Jio’s approach.
While Airtel’s box will allow you to install any app, such as Netflix, Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video, Jio’s box — as far as we can tell — will not.
Jio’s box, in other words, is a ‘walled garden’, with Jio playing the cashier-cum-gatekeeper who decides which app goes in and which one does not. Jio is also reportedly insisting on routing all payments and subscription charges via itself — a key bone of contention that may keep many apps like Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and Hotstar out of the platform.
On Airtel’s platform, subscribers are free to install all these apps and pay for them directly, without going through Airtel.
Airtel’s collaborative and open approach in Xstream is not restricted to the content either.
In the case of internet bandwidth, Airtel’s Xstream box will work on any data connection, while Jio’s box is likely to work only Jio’s connection.
In many ways, Jio is taking an approach similar to Apple and its iOS devices — exercising total control over the components and the platform so as to ensure consistently reliable quality, and a predictable bottom-line.
Airtel’s Xstream’s model is more like that of Google and its Android platform — focus largely on creating the platform and then compete on a largely equal footing with third parties on that same platform.
One key aspect that still remains unclear about Airtel’s Xstream box is whether Airtel will insist on the consumer also subscribing to its DTH service, which will cost at least Rs 154 per month. This can be a real turn-off as the Xstream service itself costs only around Rs 83 per month.
Currently, Airtel’s ‘Internet TV’ box requires the user to subscribe to Airtel Digital TV. However, given that Xstream is a standalone, paid service and Airtel Internet TV box is not, it is still possible that Airtel’s Xstream box may work without a DTH plan. However, in case of the current ‘Internet TV’, the box gets automatically locked if the user does not recharge his/her DTH account.
SERVICE DETAILS — APP & WEB
Airtel Xstream app is a revamped version of Airtel TV app. According to Airtel, the app has a new User Interface and a “much sharper content discovery and recommendation engine”.
It will come with 400 LIVE TV channels and 10,000 plus movies and shows from top content providers like ZEE5, Hooq, Eros Now, HungamaPlay and others.
The service is also available on www.airtelxstream.in and costs Rs 999 per year.
SERVICE DETAILS — XSTREME BOX
The Xstreme box is powered by Android 9.0 and also supports over 500 live TV channels via Airtel Digital DTH, in addition to all the content mentioned above.
The 4K device comes with support for third party apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube and has support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as built-in Chromecast. The remote controller has Google Assistant based voice search and hot keys for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.
The Xstream Box is available to existing Airtel Digital customers at Rs 2,249 only and for others at Rs 3,999.
Those who pay Rs 3,999 will also get a free subscription to Airtel Xstream services for one year.
The box can be purchased from Airtel retail stores, airtel.in and e-commerce sites like Flipkart, Amazon and electronic retail chains like Croma and Vijay Sales.
Interestingly, Airtel has also made available a ‘stick’ which is priced at the same rate as the box — Rs 3,999.
Like the box, this one also comes with one year subscription of Xstreme content.
Also like the box, it will be open to Google Playstore applications such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and others, and will “enable users to download any app of their choice” and is very similar to Amazon Fire Stick.
The Android 8.0 based stick will work with any screen. It is not clear whether it will support for 4K output or not.
Like the box, the Xstreme Stick will also come with voice-enabled search feature and Bluetooth 4.2.
One of the key differences between the box and the stick is that the stick will not support Airtel DTH. As such, users cannot switch between Youtube and regular TV channels using a single remote controller. Instead, they will have to use the TV remove to switch to another input to watch regular TV.
Airtel Thanks Platinum and Gold customers get complimentary access to the content on Airtel Xstream Stick.
“All other customers get free access to the content for the first 30 days and will need to subscribe to a Rs 999 annual plan to continue enjoying the exciting content catalogue,” the company said.
Airtel has partnered with Flipkart as the exclusive online partner. The stick will also be available starting today across leading Airtel retail stores, airtel.in, and retail chains like Croma and Vijay Sales.
With the launch of Xstream, Airtel has taken a solid step towards exploring business opportunities in the content aggregation space, and will compete with the likes of Amazon — which too has Fire TV, Fire TV stick, Prime video and so on, Google, Star India and others.
“With the launch of Airtel Xstream, Airtel has become the first company in India to enable a seamless digital entertainment experience, with a unified user interface across all screens… Airtel Xstream devices offer blazing-fast performance and slick viewing experience through solid product engineering, deep design excellence coupled with strong device specifications,” said the company.
The key challenge for Airtel will be in terms of ensuring connectivity. While Xstream may appeal to customers in urban areas who want to have access to all their favorite apps and platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar, it will find the going tougher in semi-urban areas where connectivity is harder to come by.
On the other hand, Jio will offer a complete package — including connectivity — in these areas, and customers will not have to worry about getting a high-speed Internet connection for their box.
Finally, Airtel will also face tough competition from the third-party box-makers and vendors, including Amazon, Xiaomi, and a variety of Chinese players who provide boxes with 4GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage for just Rs 2,999 in the Indian market.
Some of these boxes even have HDMI inputs, to which the user can connect his or her existing cable or DTH set top box, and watch live TV using the Andriod box in either full-screen or picture-in-picture mode.
Most of these boxes come with support for all Play Store apps. However, one key difference between the low-end boxes available in the market and those from recognized vendors such as Airtel, Amazon, Xiaomi and so on is support for premium content.
Many platforms, such as Netflix, do not allow the user to watch full-HD and 4K content on boxes that do not contain advanced digital rights management software. Most unbranded boxes come with only basic DRM, and do not support full-HD and 4K content on apps like Netflix.
Below are the introductory videos for Xstream Stick and Xstreme Box.