Los Angeles -- Interactive television grabbed the
technology spotlight at last week's Western Show here, less for any blockbuster new
products than for the wave of development, deployment and investment deals trumpeted by
providers of interactive services and applications.
The apparent message: Vendors see major U.S. cable
operators -- their digital, two-way plant upgrades either well under way or near
completion -- as ready to move significantly beyond limited testing to commercial
deployments of premium interactive services for both television and high-speed
Internet-connected personal computers.
Further supporting that sentiment is the growth of
interactive-TV-applications development fueled by the use of open, Internet-oriented
Also contributing is the rapid deployment of the digital
set-top boxes for providing those applications to consumers, as witnessed by General
Instrument Corp.'s assertion that it will ship 4.5 million digital set-tops next year.
"The bandwidth is there, the two-way is there, the
Internet is there and digital two-way boxes are flying out the door," Paul Kagan
Associates Inc. senior analyst Leslie Ellis said. "Last year at this time, everyone
was thinking, 'cable modem, cable modem, cable modem,' and, to an extent, 'digital cable.'
Now there's movement toward the first portal -- the television."
From video-on-demand and online gaming to electronic
commerce and TV-oriented Internet browsing, providers of hardware, software and services
vied for the attention of attending cable operators.
MSOs are faced not only with making choices about which
enhanced services their customers will pay for, but also with encroaching broadband
competition from telcos and direct-broadcast satellite services, which are just as eagerly
turning up interactivity to differentiate themselves from cable.
To underline that point, U S West last week announced the
launch in the Minneapolis market of its "WebVision" interactive-TV service,
while EchoStar Communications Corp. began offering "personal TV"
digital-recording and interactive services to its Dish Network satellite customers.
"Satellite is interactive. Cable will have to
respond," said Jan Steenkamp, CEO of interactive-TV-software developer OpenTV Inc.
That vendor's solutions are being used by Dish for other upcoming interactive programming.
Typical of the wave of announcements were the new
partnership and development strategies disclosed by interactive-TV-software developers
such as Microsoft Corp., Liberate Technologies, OpenTV, PowerTV Inc. and Wink
Communications Inc., plus service providers such as cable Internet-service provider
OpenTV alone announced a new deal to port its software to
GI's "DCT-2000" digital set-top; an expanded GI equity investment in OpenTV; a
deal to port WorldGate Communications Inc.'s Internet-over-cable-TV service to the OpenTV
platform beginning in the second quarter; and a transaction-fulfillment deal with retailer
SkyMall Inc., which will process transactions conducted via digital set-tops running on
OpenTV interactive software.
"Now the world finally realizes you can turn TV from a
passive medium to a full transactional medium," said Hal Krisbergh, CEO of
Internet-over-TV provider WorldGate Communications Inc. "It's clear that the cable
industry feels comfortable that this is its strength."
Interactive-operating-system developer Liberate was just as
busy, touting among other things a joint software-marketing agreement with GI and its new
"PopTV" program to partner with hardware, content and application developers
(including Excite@Home) to speed creation of interactive products on its platform.
"Operators can come to us, and we can bring to the
table all of the other solution partners, where we've either integrated with their
software or certified that it works with our platform," Liberate vice president of
marketing Charlie Tritschler said. "Pre-integration makes installation and deployment
happen more quickly."
Liberate also announced a deal licensing set-top maker Pace
Micro Technology plc to bundle Liberate's "TV Navigator" software with Pace's
digital boxes, and a deal to work with SeaChange International Inc. on offering
standards-based access to VOD over the Liberate platform.
Microsoft kept a slightly lower profile, focusing on
courting the community of developers that will have to create or adapt content and
applications to the interactive-television environment.
Alan Yates, director of platform marketing for Microsoft's
WebTV Networks unit, said a daylong Western Show developers' workshop co-sponsored by
Microsoft cable customer AT&T Corp. attracted several-hundred software engineers
interested in creating interactive applications that will run on the "Microsoft
TV" client and server solutions for broadband-cable systems.
One example: a "chat" feature that has been added
to the company's TV platform to mimic the popular chat capabilities of Internet sites for
Microsoft said it was working with such key
TV-production-tool developers as Chiron, Avid Technology Inc. and Peak, and it also
announced deals with SeaChange and Intertainer Inc., which have adapted their VOD
applications to run on the Microsoft TV platform.
But one of its bigger developments was the disclosure of a
newly expanded strategic relationship with Excite@Home, which used the show to officially
launch its "Advanced TV" interactive services for delivery via the cable
Advanced TV includes Internet access, TV-optimized e-mail,
e-commerce applications and tight integration between the personalization features of the
company's Excite Internet portal and the TV service.
The companies will work to accelerate the rollout of
enhanced-TV services delivered over digital set-tops and other devices. Excite@Home will
make its broadband-TV portal, applications and user interface run on the Microsoft TV
platform, and Microsoft is working with Excite@Home to extend that platform and to
eventually offer a turnkey system supporting enhanced-cable-TV services.
Excite@Home's Advanced TV essentially mirrors what it will
provide to AT&T Broadband & Internet Services for the MSOs GI "DCT-5000"
advanced set-tops. It is also working with Cox Communications Inc. to jointly develop
interactive-TV services that Cox plans to test next year in one of its major cable
"Internet access is in every single conversation we
have," said Phil Braden, CEO of conditional-access-software developer Mindport, of
his meetings with cable operators at the Western Show. "I still don't think the great
wave of value-added applications is going to hit in the coming year, although maybe after
During the show, Mindport announced a new deal with Cisco
Systems Inc. to integrate the two companies' cable-network, provisioning, billing and
standards-based modem and set-top-box platforms.
For example, Mindport will integrate its "IBS"
billing and customer-care system with the "Cisco Subscriber Resource Center"
solution for customer self-provisioning of cable modems and service. The companies are
also working to fully integrate Cisco's "Universal Broadband Router" and Data
Over Cable Service Interface Specification modem functionality into Mindport's
open-standards-based designs for digital-cable headends and set-top boxes.
"The net result of this collaboration is that in the
future, it will be easier for cable operators to integrate DOCSIS into their
networks," Braden said.
Smaller players also vied for attention. FutureTV touted
its network/server hardware and software solution for delivering customizable
broadband-interactive services such as e-commerce, an electronic programming guide, VOD,
audio on-demand, online gaming, Web browsing and e-mail.
San Francisco-based RespondTV Inc. (formerly B3TV) said
Bloomberg Television would use its server-network technology to offer enhanced-TV features
such as interactive advertising and on-demand stock quotes to subscribers with enhanced-TV
set-top boxes such as WebTV terminals.
There also were plenty of deals related to providers of
real-time online access to CD-ROM applications such as gaming, entertainment and education
Cable-modem network Road Runner said it plans to deploy the
"PlayNow" online software service from Into Networks Inc., formerly known as
The companies announced a partnership under which Into
becomes Road Runner's exclusive provider of PlayNow's real-time, broadband CD-ROM games,
education and other applications over the Road Runner high-speed online service. Road
Runner said it planned to begin rolling out PlayNow in the Northeast during the first
quarter of next year, with the service eventually being offered nationwide.
Rival online software provider Media Station Inc. disclosed
that it had landed an equity investment from Motorola Inc.
And in one of the week's it-had-to-happen deals, ICTV Inc.
said it would work with ACTV Inc. to adapt ACTV's "HyperTV" software for
synchronizing PC Web content with TV programming for ICTV's digital-TV-services platform.
Showing its platform-agnostic philosophy, Intertainer
announced plans for a set-top trial of its broadband-content-on-demand service with
Comcast Corp., as well as a separate deal to provide VOD for Cincinnati Bell Inc.'s
ZoomTown.com digital-subscriber-line service in Cincinnati.