Cable Television Laboratories Inc. reported last week that
it had reached significant milestones in the push to create an OpenCable set-top standard,
including the completion of hardware specifications and the first interoperability testing
of the security system.
In a meeting with vendors in Denver, the industry tech
organization also reaffirmed its commitment to creating a software "middleware"
standard, CableLabs president and CEO Richard Green said. Whether the process will entail
a release of a request for proposals to vendors will be decided within the next couple of
weeks, he added.
"With the release of the last big piece in the
hardware specifications, manufacturers now have enough information to begin building
OpenCable devices," Green said. "This will allow us to go forward with
interoperability testing and the determination of how the fine points of the specs are to
be interpreted, which is always part of such a process."
Undertaken in response to the federal mandate that cable
set-tops must be available for retail purchase by subscribers by July 1, 2000, OpenCable
represents an even more complex technical challenge than the cable-modem standards-setting
process, which took six months longer than anticipated to produce the first certifications
of vendor compliance with the standard.
"OpenCable has a lot of pieces that have to be tested
for interoperability individually, and then everything has to be tested together,"
In fact, he added, it remains to be decided whether
CableLabs will actually conduct a certification process as it is doing with the DOCSIS
(Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) standard. "If we do, we would want
to be as careful as we have been with DOCSIS so that the public can be confident that
anything we certify as being interoperable truly is," he said.
Despite the complexities, Green said, the combination of
the federal mandate and the general enthusiasm within the operating and vendor communities
for OpenCable was sure to keep the process on track. "The beauty of OpenCable is that
once we're there, everybody's boat floats a little higher," he added.
The completion of the hardware specs -- including the last
piece, known as the "OpenCable Network Interface" -- affords manufacturers the
lead time to build prototypes for testing while CableLabs wrestles with the middleware
component, which has proven to be one of the most contentious elements in the process.
Despite the fact that CableLabs said it would establish
such a specification from the beginning, some industry players felt that creating an open
development platform that would allow any manufacturer to offer a box for any application
would deny operators and manufacturers opportunities to profit from application-specific
According to CableLabs, Time Warner Cable chief technology
officer James Chiddix strongly endorsed the decision on middleware at last week's
conference, which was closed to the press. "There are going to be many opportunities
in this open environment for consumer-electronics companies and software companies to
innovate," Chiddix was quoted as saying.
The middleware will allow companies to "create
applications that can run on any cable system, rather than being tied to one proprietary
system," Chiddix said. "This architecture will allow cable customers to move and
to retain full functionality on cable systems."
CableLabs quoted other cable executives lending their
support to the concept, as well. "AT&T Broadband [& Internet Services]
continues to strongly support a retail strategy and this initiative," executive vice
president Laurie Schwartz Priddy said.
One sign that OpenCable is on track to meet its goals was
the successful completion of the first interoperability testing of the removable security
cards that will allow operators to apply their own security systems to services, while
guaranteeing access to those services to any authorized customer via any OpenCable box.
Manufacturers successfully demonstrating functionality in
the POD (point-of-deployment) modules included General Instrument Corp., Mindport, NDS
Ltd., NagraVision, Philips Consumer Electronics Co., SCM Microsystems Inc. and
Scientific-Atlanta Inc., officials said.
"There was a good deal of excitement at this event
because things are now starting to work, rather than simply being specs on a page,"
said Lisa Lee, OpenCable project director at CableLabs.
Lee added that CableLabs issued a request for information
seeking to identify companies that want to provide set-top boxes, integrated TV sets or
computer cards as part of the OpenCable interoperability-test "waves" that will
begin in September.