Caught Between the Platforms

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There were two reasons for the constant crowds in the National Show pavilions showcasing the "Microsoft TV" platform and the competing infrastructure of Liberate Technologies.

For one thing, each of the independent applications developers lined up under both canopies had a gaggle of its geeks and a coterie of its creatives lurking around to explain the features and operations, thus accounting for much of the throng.

But more substantively, the flow of visitors to these mega-booths demonstrated the appetite of convention-goers to experience what these new interactive services will bring to cable.

In the process, the cable industry got its first exposure to the looming platform battle between Microsoft and Liberate-a confrontation with far-reaching implications.

Even those who would like to avoid a decision will be forced to make one within a year or so.

Of course, many of the applications providers-if they actually deliver a winning service-will move to whatever platform the industry prefers.

Both contenders acknowledge that "exclusivity" is elusive in the interactive world, although Microsoft and Liberate are securing allegiances through strategic investments in developers that are creating games, on-demand entertainment, messaging, shopping, financial and navigation services.

Liberate's "PopTV" program and Microsoft's analogous "Partners" program are building up a cadre of services that will make the platform more attractive-and lucrative-for cable operators.

A few of the participating companies have existing brand recognition, such as "AOL TV," a centerpiece of Liberate's booth. But most of the pavilion pods were filled with unknown hopefuls such as The Kiss Principle, Metabyte Networks, MetaTV, Twin Entertainment, ViziWorx and Accelerate TV, all of which are striving for mind space in a complicated scenario.

The fates of these companies may be determined by how well-and how quickly-the cable industry embraces one or the other of the underlying technology platforms.

Obviously, there are ways to buy presence. Microsoft's $5 billion investment in AT & T one year ago this month is believed by many to assure it a place on AT & T cable systems, although some are wondering when these services will debut.

One point that was obvious as you wandered through both pavilions or looked into the software-development process: This interactive business is very complex and difficult. It takes longer, and it will probably cost more-much more-than originally expected.

That makes it even harder for a video-centric core of cable operators to evaluate. It was reassuring to see the intensive scrutiny that Liberate and Microsoft-and their progeny-were attracting, if only as an indicator that cable executives are trying to figure out who will be attracted to these new interactive features.

OpenTV, Sun Microsystems and others-often allied with one or both of the key players-attracted similar investigators to their interactive-platform showcases.

Meanwhile, the former big kahunas of the technology show-Motorola (or as I prefer to call it, TVFKAGI, The Vendor Formerly Known as General Instrument) and Scientific-Atlanta-were relegated to promising their support to whatever platform wins, while showcasing their own meager lineups of middleware purveyors.

Microsoft and Liberate also used the show floor to display their first trophies in the battle to cut out platform competition. Actually, Microsoft's acquisition of Peach Networks and Liberate's pending purchase of MoreCom not only reduce the interactive platform clutter, but also give each company a "line" of interactive options, including a product that works on the lower-end digital set-tops that are the first to flood the market.

Of course, the platform battle is not restricted to the upstart interactive producers. For nearly one year, Microsoft has been drawing established cable networks-such as Discovery, CNN and MTV-into its developers' fold, enabling enhancements to their video channels while enriching their allied Web components.

Liberate is taking the same approach, and obviously, the AOL TV connection is expected to pay off big-time after Time Warner is enfolded into the AOL empire.

All of this means the cable industry better study fast. It's going to have to jump onto one of those platforms very, very soon.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen liked the multicultural ambiance of dancing a hora to music played by a Dixieland band at an Irish pub party hosted by one, or the other, of the platform combatants.

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