Integration Issues—Interactive TVs Goblin

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If nothing else was contributed to the technical lexicon this summer, there was one pair of words-"integration issues"-that was used to describe the tortuously difficult work of getting interactive TV up and running.

What happened with AT&T Broadband, Microsoft Corp., Motorola Broadband Communications Sector, Sun Microsystems and Gemstar-TV Guide International? Integration issues. Why did PowerTV Inc. buy integrator Presara Technologies? For experience in solving integration issues.

Some vendors learned about integration issues the hard way last year. Diva Systems Corp. is one example: It discovered that it wasn't enough to get a nod from Motorola to run video-on-demand on its "DCT-2000" box. It also had to hitch up to TV Guide, the primary resident application on most Motorola set-tops.

William Strunk Jr. would take one look at this word pairing, grimace, and handcuff it as a "refuge of vagueness." Strunk and E. B. White (Strunk's student, and later, co-author of "Elements of Style") had little time for abstruse descriptions.

Yet how else does one describe intangible complexities spanning technology, politics, and scheduling? "Integration issues" is a phrase here to stay. So let's get specific about it.

What does "integration issues" mean?

Integration issues are obstacles, usually in software, and usually related to making different types of software work cooperatively. Because it's mostly software-related, an "integration issue" is not something you can pick up with your hands, examine, diagnose and fix.

An example: The guide must be a good neighbor to other services like electronic mail, Web browsing and anything clickable. None can hog available processing power or memory. All must harmoniously co-exist. One bad neighbor, and the box locks up. Having to tell the cable customer to recycle power on the box-to reboot-is not good.

Integration issues are the reason interactive TV is so difficult now. Think back to the mid-'90s, when cable first started installing digital set-top boxes. Recall what those boxes did: squeezed 10-times or more channels into the space of one analog channel and offered an electronic guide to help subscribers navigate. We didn't hear much about integration issues then, because there wasn't much software required.

Over the past five years, the digital boxes got beefier. Maybe this didn't happen as quickly as some would like.

I'm thinking of a keynote delivered to CTAM's Broadband Opportunity Conference earlier this month by Jonathan Taplin, CEO of Intertainer Inc. Taplin's fervor was deliciously provocative: Evangelizing for faster digital set-top microprocessors that cost $45 to $60 per box, he thumped Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. as "too cheap" to stay technologically current.

I played out Taplin's request in my mind, and found myself feeling sorry for the poor chump who had to traipse into corporate, hand out, to request that silicon upgrade. For some MSOs, like AT&T and Time Warner Cable, adding $45 to $60 more per box adds up to around $100 million in unanticipated, incremental cost-each-based on '01 set-top order levels.

The ants in Taplin's pants are understandable, and I commend his swashbuckling insistence on better chips. More is better, true. The problem is, more doesn't happen overnight. The industry's two biggest set-top makers, S-A and Motorola, are each building about a million boxes per quarter. That's a big ship to turn.

And it's a ship that's already turning. Look at the progression in what's been under the hood of cable's digital boxes. From the DCT-1000 and DCT-1200 in the mid-'90s, to its DCT-2000, through to its advanced DCT-5000, Motorola increased processing power, memory, and graphics capabilities. Scientific-Atlanta did, too. Today, S-A's "Explorer 2010" boxes use a 130-MHz processor, and can be populated with double-digit RAM, in some cases as much as 50 megabytes.

Seems like a long time since the big issue in the industry was whether or not to add another megabyte of memory-for a total of 2 megabytes-to decode the B-frame portion of a TV picture compressed with MPEG-2. (That, too, was a $45-per-box decision. One megabyte of memory cost about as much back then. Cable did it, but added about a year to the digital launch timetable.)

More muscle under the hood of the digital boxes means lots more software. There's the operating system, like Microsoft's WinCE and PowerTV, needed to tell the chips what to do. There's middleware on top of that (translated in this column within the October 2, 2000 edition of
Multichannel News

). And, there are the applications: The guide, e-mail, web browsing, clickable ads, clickable content that correlates with the show that's airing.

Part of "integration issues" are those individual software modules-the OS, the middleware, and the applications. Each has to run perfectly in isolation. Each also has to work perfectly with one another. That's the technological to-do list comprising integration.

Integration also involves scheduling and organization. Take the case of AT&T Broadband, which is struggling to build an interactive-TV business that runs on Motorola's DCT-5000, loaded with Microsoft's WinCE and Sun's Java TV environment. Somebody had to know precisely where each partner was on the path to launch. Somebody had to mind the list of known bugs for each participant.

But what happens when that somebody is the customer-AT&T?

Enter the politics portion of "integration issues." It's politically difficult (and I'm putting it mildly) to expose the number and location of your blemishes to your customer, no matter who you are, or what business you're in.

Stitching together various pieces of software, under tight deadlines that involve competitors, is hard.

We'll be hearing about integration issues from now on, probably. That's the bad news. The good news is, there are smart people working on it, and they learn more daily. This takes time. Try to respect the journey.

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