In what may be a ray of light for the still-gloomy middleware market, DirecTV Inc. has tapped Thomson subsidiary Canal Plus U.S. Technologies to provide its MediaHighway system for a new line of basic satellite digital set-top boxes.
It is also the first major U.S. win for Canal Plus, a former Vivendi Universal subsidiary bought by Paris-based Thomson last year.
Under the deal, DirecTV will bolt the MediaHighway middleware platform onto a new line of basic digital satellite boxes. Middleware provides the communications link between a box's operating system and the applications that run aboard it, giving the box a better ability to manage various applications.
The DBS provider has not yet determined when that new box line will debut, but it does have the project on a fast track, according to Laura O'Donnell, DirecTV's vice president of product development.
"Safe to say it's not this year, but it certainly will be something we will be focused on as a very specific and concerted effort to get this moving as quickly as possible," she said.
There has been a fair amount of speculation that OpenTV Inc., a Liberty Media Corp. subsidiary that supplies middleware to News Corp.'s U.K. direct-to-home satellite outlet, British Sky Broadcasting plc, might have an inside track, given News Corp.'s pending acquisition of DirecTV.
While O'Donnell declined to comment on that aspect, she did say DirecTV looked at several middleware options before settling on MediaHighway.
A critical factor working in MediaHighway's favor is that it's one of the few middleware providers to win a Digital Video Broadcasting Multimedia Home Platform (DVB-MHP) stamp of compliance.
"It was certainly one of the things that factored into our plans," O'Donnell said. "And we just assessed their technology and determined that it was very well suited for the requirements we laid out for what we wanted in a middleware for our platform."
It also helped that Thomson has a longstanding relationship with DirecTV, as a co-developer for the early UltimateTV platform and a supplier of satellite receiver boxes.
"It is true that this is the first major breakthrough in the U.S. from a middleware standpoint, and obviously the longstanding relationship that Thomson has had with DirecTV was a factor, I believe," said Canal Plus general manager Pascal Portelli.
The goal behind adding the middleware is to keep future interactive services in DirecTV's gun sights. O'Donnell said the DBS provider has not yet settled on what that will include, but given the time it will take to develop the platform, "we believe we still have several months before we have to decide which interactive services we need to start working on."
"We firmly believe there is a place for it in the U.S. market — it's just a matter of finding the right application that serves the U.S. customers' interests," O'Donnell added. "I think you just have to find the secret sauce."
The middleware would also bring some consistency to DirecTV's herd of box brands.
"Today, if you look at DirecTV boxes and you buy a Thomson box or a Samsung box or a Hughes Network Systems box or a Philips box, the user experience is very different when you move from one box to another," she said. "We don't have a single DirecTV user experience, so one of the things middleware will enable us to do is to create user interface that will be consistent, regardless of the manufacturer of the box."
Given that drive to make the user interfaces consistent, in the future the middleware also may find its way into more advanced boxes.
"We certainly are interested in that opportunity," O'Donnell said. "We believe that when a person buys the most advanced boxes, they should have access to everything, and today our suite of boxes really don't provide that. So that is part of our strategy going forward, but our focus right now is our basic boxes, and we still need to assess how this technology might fit into those higher-end boxes."
For Canal Plus, the deal is a rare middleware win for an industry that has shifted away from that box architecture in recent years.
But Portelli said that trend may be reversing.
"It seems that there are some signs that some operators are looking at that — maybe not for the short-term but maybe for the mid-term — but some of them are interested, that's for sure," Portelli said.
"Whether they will actually deploy, it's up to them. But some of them — including the biggest one — are interested in keeping up with the developments and what we can propose, and I assume they are very much aware of what's going on in the market elsewhere in the world."