New silicon from IBM Microelectronics and Conexant Systems Inc. will continue to push the envelope for set-top performance, giving box makers more options for powering next-generation applications.
IBM recently said it would integrate MontaVista Software's Linux-based "Hard Hat" Linux operating system with its PowerPC-based set-top box controller. The move is designed to enable new gateway products, and Netgem SA — an interactive-services developer with offices in the U.K. and Europe — will develop applications based on the IBM controllers and the Hard Hat Linux OS.
Netgem's new platform will support electronic program guides, multimedia electronic mail and Internet access, as well as audio and video-on-demand.
Linux is the open-source, Unix-based OS that has gained traction in a variety of applications. TiVo Inc.'s personal video recorder (PVR) software and hardware supports both Linux and IBM PowerPC chips.
"Manufacturers of the [set-top] want to work with open source standards because it gives them more flexibility and doesn't lock them into a proprietary, locked architecture," noted John Sixsmith, product marketing manager for IBM Microelectronics' digital-video products group. "We are constantly in meetings with potential and existing customers and, almost without exception, they want to know what we're doing with regard to Linux."
Introduced last year, IBM's PowerPC set-top chips have yet to make a dent in the North American set-top sector, although the company is clearly shopping its chips around.
When asked if IBM is speaking with leading set-top makers such as Scientific-Atlanta Inc., Motorola Broadband Communications Sector, Pace Micro Technology plc, Philips Consumer Electronics Co. or Pioneer New Media Technologies Inc., Sixsmith declined to discuss specifics, but said "none of those names are foreign to us."
The North American market "is a huge market that's impossible to ignore," he added.
A particular vendor's support for an OS "is never a critical factor," said Gartner Dataquest senior analyst Jay Srivasta. But it's important to give application developers "a level of flexibility."
Because many developers are now working with the open-source Linux kernel, more applications — including set-top box apps such as electronic-commerce and interactive programs — will theoretically be available.
Focusing on the red-hot PVR sector, Conexant separately released a new decoder chip, which company product-line manager Jamie Ching said is targeted for low-end to mid-range set-tops that incorporate PVR technology.
The chips include inputs for dual tuners/demodulators and three independent transport stream demultiplexers, which allow users to record two programs while watching a third.
"We think that the watch-and-record functionality is going to be indispensable," in both high-end boxes as well as low- and mid-range boxes, Ching concluded.