Chicago -- Industry vendors lined up last week to support
Microsoft Corp.'s television-software platform, while rival operating-system
providers scrambled for MSO attention as their giant competitor gained momentum.
More than 30 companies encompassing the industry's
largest hardware manufacturers, chip makers, network operators, system integrators and
application developers announced during the National Show here that they were actively
working with Microsoft's "TV Platform Adaptation Kit."
The so-called TVPAK contains client software for operating
set-tops and other television appliances, plus server software used at the headend for
deploying and managing advanced services.
Microsoft TV uses an adaptation of the Windows CE operating
system and elements of the WebTV Networks Internet-access platform to enable such
digital-set-top-box functionality as digital video, interactive broadcast programming, Web
browsing, electronic commerce and telephony.
The software is still under development for cable: The TV
Server suite will be available to operators later this year, with an eye toward supporting
commercial deployments in the first half of 2000.
It was unclear if MSOs, which have still largely not
disclosed decisions about what will run their next-generation digital set-tops, were
clamoring for Windows-based solutions. AT&T Broadband & Internet Services is the
only significant North American operator so far to disclose plans to use the platform.
But this week's announcements underlined the sense
that although there are other, more mature interactive-TV platforms, the vendor community
increasingly does not want to be caught short if MSO customers begin choosing
Microsoft's platform for their next-generation advanced services.
"Certainly, the AT&T Windows CE selection drives
set-top vendor preferences for an operating system," said Michael Harris, president
of consulting firm Kinetic Strategies Inc. "They want to be sure they have the
solution for the potentially largest set-top purchaser."
Vendors at the show agreed, pointing to Microsoft's
recent $5 billion investment in AT&T in return for a deal to put WinCE into up to 10
million set-tops and to give Microsoft a significant role at the headend of the
operator's rebuilt two-way networks.
"You can speak real loud when you've got $5
billion to put on the table," said Bob Van Orden, vice president of product marketing
for digital-subscriber networks at Scientific-Atlanta Inc., which owns the rival
"PowerTV" operating-system platform. "If the market wants that solution, we
want to provide the choice."
General Instrument Corp. showed Microsoft TV applications
such as Web browsing running on its advanced "DCT-5000" set-top. Executives
indicated that the platform still needed development work, but no more so than solutions
from its other DCT-5000 software partners.
"We're seeing strong interest from other parties,
as well [as AT&T] -- not to the exclusion of other solutions, but Microsoft's
certainly a leader out there," said David Robinson, senior vice president of
GI's digital-network-systems unit.
"Some operators will choose a portion of the package
instead of the entire suite," Robinson added. "But if you're looking for an
all-in-one solution, Microsoft is one of the few you can count on to perform."
Philips Consumer Electronics Co. -- which has a long
relationship with Microsoft from making WebTV terminals and handheld computer and
"Palm PC" devices running on WinCE -- demonstrated basic WebTV-type applications
on its own set-tops and said it plans to port Microsoft TV to an upcoming box based on its
own "Trimedia" microprocessor.
Philips Digital Video Systems Co. general manager Rudy Roth
said it took Philips engineers only a few weeks to port Microsoft's
television-software stack to his company's open-architecture set-top.
"The TVPAK software is, from an applications
viewpoint, nothing new. It's basically WebTV plus other applications," Roth
said. "The big difference is that until now, it was available only on the WebTV chip
set and software. This makes it available on a wider range of product from multiple
Roth added that besides offering Microsoft's complete
applications suite running on WinCE, Philips was working on its own applications, and it
expected commercial availability of a WinCE box -- now in alpha release -- by the first
"We want to provide solutions that are optimized for
our customers," Roth said, noting that the Digital Video Broadcasting platform
set-tops Philips is supplying to MediaOneGroup Inc. run on Canal Plus'
"MediaHighway" software stack. "We have Windows CE already, and we're
proving that it's working."
But with Microsoft's solution still not commercially
available, some vendors had not seen significant MSO interest in supporting the platform.
"Outside of AT&T, we're not" seeing
demand, said William Wall, technical director of S-A's subscriber-networks sector.
S-A boasted set-top developments of its own at the show,
formally introducing the next generation of its advanced digital set-tops, the
"Explorer 6000," which it has been informally displaying for a couple of months.
Scheduled for second-quarter-2000 availability, the 6000
will support all major video and modem standards, such as DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service
Interface Specification) and DAVIC (Digital Audio/Video Interoperability Council), as well
as Microsoft TV, its own PowerTV operating system and other platforms.
The 6000 will also support high-definition television and
the point-of-deployment security module required to meet the government's July 2000
deadline for separating security and channel-selection functions.
Other solutions providers also used the show to jockey for
attention as open-system alternatives to Windows.
Software developer Mindport announced that it plans to
expand into the North American market with designs for an OpenCable-compliant set-top box
running the OpenTV operating system and featuring a DOCSIS-based modem and Mindport's
Mindport said it would demonstrate the POD at next
month's operability testing by Cable Television Laboratories Inc. and at an
interoperability event planned by the Federal Communications Commission July 26.
Mindport, which owns 80 percent of OpenTV, is a relative
latecomer to the North American market. But 3 million set-tops internationally use its
applications, operating system and conditional-access products.
U.S. direct-broadcast satellite provider EchoStar
Communications Corp. will launch OpenTV's interactive-program platform this fall,
which OpenTV believes will open MSOs' minds to its products.
"Everybody hedges on Microsoft just because Microsoft
is Microsoft," OpenTV CEO Jan Steenkamp said. "Whether Microsoft has the most
compelling solution in the market today is questionable."