News

Taking the OnRamp

5/16/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

Four major cable MSOs are joining a handful of technology vendors to develop a Java-based digital television application program interface specification for standardized ITV services that could run on existing set-tops.

The so-called Java Community Process Expert Group consists of Cox Communications Inc., Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., Cable Television Laboratories Inc., GoldPocket Interactive, Liberate Technologies Inc., Motorola Inc., Philips Consumer Electronics Co., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Vidiom Systems Corp.

The group has coalesced over the past year to create the so called “OnRamp to OCAP,” for OpenCable Application Protocol, which is intended to be a software standard for ITV applications development across cable set-top platforms.

ITV features are beginning to flourish on U.S. direct-broadcast satellite platforms, with more expected to be added to News Corp.-owned DirecTV Inc. later this year.

Cable companies increasingly see ITV as an important competitive hedge against those rivals, but ITV has been notoriously slow to develop on U.S. cable — partly because of the lack of a nationwide standard.

Cable operators see the OnRamp as a way to develop and deploy a wide range of interactive applications on current (2000 series and above) set-tops before higher-end, fully OCAP-compliant boxes appear on the market.

Any applications that are built for OnRamp are intended to be forward compatible with future OCAP boxes, which are unlikely to appear on the market for at least another year or so.

OCAP uses Sun’s Java software as a fundamental building block in the program, a software stack that is in widespread use in other markets — wireless phones, for example — making it easier for content developers to write cable-specific applications.

“The goal is that someone can write a checkers game that can run on every client box,” said Cox director of ITV technology Michael Pasquinilli.

Cox would like to enter the ITV space later this year, he said, with trials that would include caller ID on the TV for its phone customers, and would allow subscribers to view cable bills and electronic mail on their TV sets.

In phase two, Cox would move on to ITV games and other content features.

According to Pasquinilli, the circa-2004 software stack looks something like this: On top of the base set-top hardware is the operating system layer, typically from Scientific-Atlanta Inc.’s PowerTV or Motorola Inc.

Java would run on top of that layer of software. APIs would enter the set-top through a vertical Extensible Markup Language (XML) portal.

“The applications that would run on the set-top box would be XML on top of Java or written to Java,” Pasquinilli said. Cox also needs a middleware provider to handle the translation between the two software programs.

At the National Show two weeks ago, Liberate showed off its various TV Navigator products, including its OnRamp API-based version 5.0.

XML is key, said Cox’s Pasquinilli, because it will allow content providers to reuse content already produced in that medium for the Internet.

“This will help save time and development costs, enabling us to launch robust interactive services quickly,” said The Weather Channel vice president of ITV and video-on-demand Lisa Shankle.

VENDOR INTEREST

The other members of the Expert Group share a vested interest in seeing ITV flourish. GoldPocket Interactive is a pioneer in two-screen interactivity with major cable and broadcast networks.

Without a great deal of difficulty, it could port current two-screen applications to the OnRamp environment, Pasquinilli said.

Motorola’s interest spans both the set-top and mobile phone space, while Philips is a major player with ITV software in Europe.

Vidiom Systems, another software provider, was showcasing OCAP content on S-A boxes at last December’s Western Show. Vidiom also is working with Cox, Pasquinilli said.

“They have strong expertise in OCAP,” he said.

NATIONAL ITV NEEDED

Pasquinilli, who has worked at Pioneer and S-A, is a 10-year veteran of the ITV space. “What killed ITV is that it couldn’t get a national footprint. You couldn’t get applications to run on the Motorola platform because the EPG controlled that platform. It was a technical and business gatekeeper. That left S-A, and only half the market.”

In the past few years, set-top makers have introduced many new versions of set-tops, plus software upgrades, making it very difficult for developers to write an application that would work across multiple devices. “The combinations became so broad, you couldn’t get MSOs to agree on any single vendor or application.”

But with the emergence of OnRamp, MSOs could port TV Guide to a Java platform, freeing up space in the set-top for other applications.

Cox is using MetaTV as an application-developer company to provide services including simple navigation, VOD, enhanced TV, virtual channels, polling, voting and customer-care features.

Sun benefits in two ways, said Bill Sheppard, group business development manager, digital television. One is through Java license pools, and the second through associated software and server sales of Sun equipment that would grow out of Java development.

Sun is, of course, no stranger to the cable business. Seven years ago, it offered up JavaSoft, the first software iteration for cable’s interactive aspirations.

“We had a set-top box summit with studio executives, cable and MSOs,” Sheppard said, back in 1997. “The consensus was that Java appeared to be suitable to be a common platform for ITV. We then led an effort to do Java TV APIs as a basis for MHP [the Multimedia Home Platform specification] and OCAP.”

DCT 5000 DETOUR

But that project was detoured when AT&T Broadband wrapped its arms around the DCT 5000 project. Microsoft and Sun were to be major software players in that initiative. “A lot of energy was burned,” Sheppard noted, as the project — and the early hopes for ITV — crashed.

But in the intervening years, ITV-related developments continued, led by News Corp.’s British Sky Broadcasting plc satellite platform. In addition, the MHP specification gained momentum in Europe. “That allowed CableLabs to base its OCAP specification on MHP and still maintain continuity with the industry,” said Sheppard — and it provided cable with an economical way to manage a multi-vendor environment.

When Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. purchased DirecTV last year, OCAP implementations took on greater urgency in the U.S. — and the effort to launch the OnRamp was born.

The goal is to allow interactive applications to run on the 30 million deployed legacy set-tops before OCAP set-tops arrive.

Although the graphics and resolution will need to be adjusted, many of those web applications could be ported over to the TV environment, Cox executives say. And depending on how soon Murdoch rolls out interactivity, those applications could find their way to cable subscribers sooner rather than later.

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