Meet the New Term: 'Monitor App'

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Every so often, a new technical term tiptoes in through a side door. Before long, you hear it twice a week, then maybe three times a week. When it gets up to four times a day, it's probably time to inspect this new expression a little more closely.

Meet "the monitor app," a flourishing addition to the language of digital-video software. It hails from the OpenCable side of the house, and specifically from its software work, known as "OCAP," for "OpenCable Applications Platform."

Given the mixed meanings of the word "monitor," a quick distinction: This is monitor like hall monitor, not monitor like Harriet the Spy. "App" is short for "application."

To know the monitor app is to clear your mind of everything you know about digital cable boxes, at least as a start.

Think instead about the future consumer device that has a built-in digital set-top box.

To simplify matters, let's say it's a TV.

It turns out that there are lots of decision points, mostly played out in software, on the road to the TV/set-top combination.

Even if you cede the obvious to the TV's control mechanisms — volume control, changing channels, controlling a built-in DVD player — there's a ridiculously complicated matrix of stuff that needs attention.

In general, then, the monitor app is the shepherd of the cable-specific parts of that matrix. It takes care of the bare basics.

As a point of reference, in today's digital boxes, the monitor app is generally called a "resident app," meaning that it's omnipresent inside the box.

It does things like fetching and displaying the volume banner or electronic program guide, when invoked, as well as any other mechanisms that qualify as "settings."

But the monitor app is more like a "co-resident app" in the TV/set-top combo, because the CE/cable combo unit itself is a sort of duplex.

The monitor app gets downloaded from the cable operator when a customer brings the new TV/set-top home from the store, plugs it in, and wants to summon whichever premium services and applications are of interest.

Mostly, the monitor app is designed to let MSOs decide what to do when certain situations arise, like when security is required (premium apps), or when a rogue app tries to bring the network to its knees (think virus here).

If an application has to go on or come off at specific times (start or end boundaries), the monitor app makes sure it lives within its lifespan — a mechanism software people call "applications lifecycle management."

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If two different applications are elbowing for the same resource at the same time — say a nook of memory or a kick from the processor — the monitor app mediates.

(This latter point makes consumer-electronics manufacturers uneasy. They don't want cable's monitor app to futz with any of the mechanisms they consider "theirs." And vice versa. This mutual-futzing worry is the crux of most of the issues that will arise between cable and the CE industry over the next few decades, as these combination devices evolve.)

There's assorted other language that pops up around the monitor app. The way it gets to its destination (the combo TV/set-top), for example, is within an impressively nerdy electronic table, called "XAIT," for "Extended Applications Information Table."

More lingo: The monitor behaves as an "unbound app,"
which means it has no correlation to any channel or program that may be showing on the TV.

When an MSO's monitor app gets to a combo TV/set-top, it loads itself into the types of memory chips designed to keep their contents, even without power. These chips are called "flash" memory.

When a monitor app makes itself permanent in flash, it "flashes itself." (Who says software engineers don't have a sense of humor?)

Monitor apps specific to OCAP don't exist yet. Consumer-electronics manufacturers are developing prototypes that will likely appear by the year-end convention season.

MSO technologists involved in OCAP are just now mulling who will write their specific monitor app. (Recall that one of the root reasons for OpenCable and OCAP in the first place was for MSOs to get a better sense of control over their own competitive destiny, by not locking themselves in with proprietary vendors.)

Timing specifics aside, know that there are those who believe, with increasing fervor, that the intersection between consumer-electronics devices and cable is non-negotiable. It fuels the race to innovation and price reduction — the two missing "must haves" in the industry's ongoing duel with satellite providers.

Regardless, count on the monitor app to chew up big chunks of meeting time, once MSOs (and their food chain) start planning how to launch OpenCable and OCAP.

Questions? Suggestions? Write to Leslie Ellis at
ellis299@aol.com.

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