IBM Corp.'s set-top-box silicon, introduced in March, was recently featured in a key demonstration at the International Broadcast Conference 2000 in Amsterdam, Netherlands, boosting the "PowerPC" chip architecture as a contender in the competitive set-top silicon market.
The PowerPC chips and evaluation kit were used to demonstrate new features of Canal Plus S.A.'s "Mediahighway" middleware, including personal-video-recording capability.
"I think this is huge," said Jay Srivasta, senior analyst with Gartner Group Inc.'s Dataquest. "Canal Plus has used other silicon typically in the past. If this is any indication that they will use PowerPC chips in their set-tops with Mediahighway, that's very big for IBM."
But a Canal Plus spokesman pointed out that the company "leaves it to its clients-consumer-electronics companies and digital manufacturers-to decide which hardware components, including OS [operating systems] and processors, to use on their set-top boxes."
Canal Plus also demonstrated its PVR service in Amsterdam on a set-top with STMicroelectronics integrated circuits.
The demo was a major step for IBM as it tries to break into a business dominated by STMicroelectronics and LSI Logic Corp. IBM sells set-top chips to Taiwanese ASE Technology Inc., and it recently announced a deal with Hong Kong-based VTech-MMC, although details of those deals were unavailable.
IBM also supplies PowerPC chips to Philips Consumer Electronics Co. for its TiVo Inc. PVR set-top.
Now IBM can add support for Canal Plus Mediahighway middleware to the PowerPC's list of credentials. "By demonstrating close working relations with Canal Plus, [the collaboration] will open doors for us with operators using the Mediahighway platform," IBM Microelectronics set-top box product marketing manager John Sixsmith said.
He added that IBM is "very well positioned when Canal Plus moves to its next-generation service."
According to Canal Plus, more than 20 digital operators and broadcasters have deployed Mediahighway, including CanalSatellite in France, ONdigital in the United Kingdom and MediaOne Group Inc. (now part of AT & T Broadband) in the United States.
Mediahighway and the company's conditional-access system run in close to 7 million digital set-top boxes, integrated digital-TV sets and PC cards, as well as in digital-cable, satellite and terrestrial environments.
Sixsmith said the company's "STB03xxx" controllers, using the PowerPC chip, support Wind River Systems Inc.'s real-time operating systems, "PSOS" and "VxWorks." Plans to support Liberate Technologies' middleware and Microsoft Corp.'s TV platform are still up in the air.
IBM, Sixsmith added, is watching Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s OpenCable project, which is evaluating several middleware vendors in an attempt to create a standard for advanced digital set-tops. "We're anxiously awaiting to find out what comes of that," he said.
IBM crafted its STB03xxx series of digital set-top-box integrated controllers around its "PowerPC 405" chip, which runs at 150 or 225 millions of instructions per second. The chip operates at 108 or 162 megahertz with a 16-kilobit instruction cache and 8-KB data cache.
The controller provides all of the functionality needed for a set-top-minus memory, tuning and demodulation-Sixsmith said. A "Java Virtual Machine" has been enabled on the STB03xxx series, as well, he added.
Sixsmith noted that the Canal Plus demo was performed with a set-top equipped with a hard drive for video storage. He said the amount of video and audio data needing for processing and storage on the disc requires hefty processing power and extra bandwidth.
For example, when a user decides to pause programming, the set-top and silicon must continue to write incoming video to disc. When the user resumes playback, the box will display the programming at the point where the user left off and continue to simultaneously record and store the live video stream.
Sixsmith said advanced applications, such as Web browsing and PVR, benefit from the processing power.
Future versions of the PowerPC chip will incorporate Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification capability, he said, adding, "We need to provide as much functionality in the set-top as we can," including the high-speed back channel that DOCSIS support would provide.
IBM has its eyes on providing chips for digital set-tops, but it has yet to forge relationships with Motorola Broadband Communications Sector or Scientific-Atlanta Inc. A Motorola Broadband spokeswoman said the company is "always evaluating new chips and technology."