New York-Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. co-president Peter Boylan, while vowing to vigorously defend his company's patents in the interactive-programming guide space, said last week that Gemstar also would consider supporting a server-based technology for its IPG.
"We're platform-agnostic," Boylan said at the Kagan Broadband Cable Technology & Finance conference. "The service provider is going to decide how much fiber they want and what kind of digital set-top boxes they want. We'll be anywhere.
"There are a lot of boxes capable of doing more, and we believe it is in the operators' best interest to push as many interactive services as possible into those boxes at that limited footprint. The way to do that is build the network, make it two-way, put servers in the headend and push as much of the application off into the network as possible."
Gemstar's IPG, TV Guide Interactive, is a set-top-based product that is currently in use among several MSOs. Gemstar has been adamant in defending its IPG-technology patents.
"We fully intend to make deals with every service provider," Boylan said. "We have impenetrable patent protection."
Having a server-based product could infringe on patents claimed by WorldGate Communications Inc., which has licensed its technology to a consortium of four MSOs called TV Gateway.
But WorldGate chairman Hal Krisbergh said the TV Gateway consortium-WorldGate, Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc., Adelphia Communications Corp. and Charter Communications Inc.-aren't likely to aggressively litigate server-based IPG patent infringement.
"We would take a slightly different approach," Krisbergh said. "Our approach would not be to try to control or block [a server-based IPG]."
Instead, TV Gateway would look to forge a licensing arrangement with whoever uses its technology.
Krisbergh said the industry's current philosophy favors opening up the set-top box to a variety of guide services, not just one.
"The MSOs want an open platform so they can put in 10 guides," Krisbergh said. "WorldGate provides the technology and provides the tools to open up the box."
There is more than enough room for both the TV Guide and TV Gateway IPGs to coexist, Krisbergh added.
The rest of the debate centered on the viability of "thin-client" versus "fat-client" solutions. Krisbergh said there is a big misperception that thin-client solutions that have much of their software applications installed at the headend-like TV Gateway-have latency problems.
Much of TV Gateway's guide information is broadcast into a carousel within each set-top box for eight hours at a time, he added, which virtually eliminates such problems.
"I would argue that because we don't process in the box, our latency is less than a fat-client solution," Krisbergh said. "By going to the broadcast model, we have cut the latency."
MTV Networks President Mark Rosenthal expressed some concern that interactive guides would become another gatekeeper for programmers.
"The IPG fulfills a perceived consumer need and becomes another gatekeeper," Rosenthal said. "We've already dealt with one set of gatekeepers and we've made our peace. Now, depending on how the remote control is picked up, we're going to have our content trumped by one screen."
Rosenthal said that could lead to a whole new set of negotiations between programmers, operators and guide companies. And opportunities for advertising and television-commerce on interactive guides jeopardize the networks'ability to sell advertising.
"Does AT & T Broadband have the right at will to shrink the signal of MTV and sell CDs on a bar along the side [of the screen] that has nothing to do with MTV?" Rosenthal said. "They'll say they do. What else does it mean for cable networks? Not only the ability to T-commerce, but the ability to sell ads that may trump our advertising."
Rosenthal said that would lead to the creation of more network brand extensions and to additional off-channel branding to maintain networks' identity.
"We're going to have to context shows in ways that we may not have had to," Rosenthal said. "If it's passed through a filter you guys are creating, we're going to need to label, promote and package our content so it can be found in the Net."
Krisbergh said it was up to programmers and operators to make sure that IPGs don't become gatekeepers.
"This is an enabling technology, not a gatekeeping technology," Krisbergh said. "With the explosion of content, you need to help the user navigate through this. If it moves too far from navigation, to the so-called walled gardens and a controlled environment, it will be very important for the industry, programmers and the marketplace to ensure it is not a gatekeeping function."