Technology

Get 'OCUR’-Savvy Before Vista Debuts

9/08/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

To mark the beginning of the back-to-school season, this week’s column starts with a bit of “guess that translation.”

The clues: It’s an awkward, four-letter acronym that sounds like a gumbo ingredient when spoken. It isn’t news, but will be new to cable-system operations within four months. Every time you type it, your spell checker immediately (and maddeningly) changes it to “occur.”

If you guessed “OCUR,” for “OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver,” then you probably don’t need this week’s translation.

VISTA SUPPORTS OCUR

If you didn’t, here are the basics. It’s pronounced “oh-kurr,” which is why the okra quips are never far away. It was first announced in November of ’05, when CableLabs ordained Microsoft Corp. to include premium digital and high-definition video in its Media Center Edition software. In May of this year, Real Networks also became an OCUR signatory.

Here’s what OCUR means, at a consumer level: Starting in January ’07, a stroll through the PC aisle at the electronics store could inspire the purchase of a machine loaded with Microsoft’s “Vista” series Media Center Edition (“MCE” for short).

Vista supports OCUR, which means Vista PCs will be able to accept a one-way (“unidirectional”) CableCard — just like the one-way CableCards that currently decrypt premium digital channels in some TVs and HDTVs.

Ultimately, it means that starting in a few months, people will be able to buy a PC, subscribe to a broadband connection, and order premium video channels from their cable operator that will display on the PC screen — and anything connected to it (high-definition displays, for instance.)

Here’s how it works, technically: Say you get a PC with the Vista version of Microsoft Media Center Edition. Say that machine came with an external “OCUR” CableCard reader (embedded versions are coming). You plug a coaxial cable into the front of it, slide in the CableCard, and connect into the back of the PC with a universal serial bus cable.

The OCUR box takes the encrypted digital video from the CableCard, and re-encrypts it — either with Microsoft’s digital rights management, or with Real’s “Helix.” That way, the stream stays protected.

Even though the CableCards used in OCUR are the same as those used for one-way HDTVs, there are some differences in getting a subscribing home set up for OCUR, compared to getting an HDTV set-up to decrypt premium channels over a CableCard.

Generally speaking, the CableCards are provisioned the same for one-way TVs as they are in OCUR devices. The same headend units are involved; the same billing linkages work.

What’s different is the installation. Instead of going to a known and specific area of an operator’s existing TV-navigation system, for instance, installers will need to locate the correct setup screens within the Vista MCE operating system. Not a huge barrier, but a difference nonetheless.

Plus, the consumer who buys the service may very well expect and desire some help on the home-networking front. Installers will very likely be asked to help connect a PC to an HDTV display, perhaps in a different room than the PC. Installers savvy in both “traditional digital video” as well as broadband data systems will be at a premium.

Also, customer-care employees will need to know that there is such a thing as a PC that can subscribe to premium HD video channels, and that those customers will require a CableCard dispatch.

IP VIDEO FORAY

For marketers, it’s notable that this whole OCUR thing serves as the industry’s first real foray into “IP video,” outside of Time Warner Cable’s work last year in San Diego, Calif.

Notably, those customers who decide to get premium cable channels via their Media Center Edition PC won’t be using the same navigational system used in digital cable boxes. They’ll find stuff using the navigation system that comes with Media Center. Whether this is good or bad is a matter of considerable debate.

It’s anybody’s guess how many people will be inspired to buy a PC that contains the Vista version of Media Center Edition, and from there opt to order premium HD channels for it from their cable operator. In May, Microsoft officials put sales of overall (non-Vista) Media Center Edition software at 10 million copies, at a rate of about 1 million per month.

Vista debuts in January. If forewarned is forearmed, it’s probably not a bad idea to find a beta copy, get an installation team ready, and make sure relevant staffers have all the information they need.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at www.translation-please.com.

October