Once advanced set-top boxes hit the retail market, complete with middleware solutions that conform to standards, MSOs will see a bounty of new types of applications and opportunities, analysts said.
Unlike the past few years, when interactive television mimicked the Internet, MSOs can expect to see TV-specific applications popping up, said Cynthia Brumfield, principal analyst with cable and broadband research firm Broadband Intelligence Inc.
"The TV opens up worlds that the Internet can't deliver on. T-commerce is going to be huge-one of the big interactive applications that will go through middleware. So is enhanced television. Connecting with a program is something that the Internet just can't compete with," she added.
Middleware is a software technology that can be downloaded and updated dynamically to set-top boxes without the need for truck rolls or manual configuration.
It provides a HyperText Markup Language engine to help interactive applications render on the television set, along with security and encrypting technologies to enable commerce and personal-data transactions.
The middleware resides above the set-top's operating system and below any applications that are designed to work with the middleware. In a way, it's almost like the glue that binds the hardware and the software-application layers.
Liberate Technologies senior vice president of corporate development David Limp said if the current proprietary middleware is any indication of its popularity, Brumfield's contention that t-commerce would be a home run is correct.
Liberate is rolling out two-way applications in Europe, and its numbers have been surprising, Limp said. Only 80,000 to 100,000 interactive installations are available, yet the company has seen customers embrace the technology with a vengeance.
One of the new applications-a program that lets users play game shows in real time-boasts 15,000 to 20,000 users per day, Limp said. "Churn is down and new subs are coming from outside of the group you'd think you'd be getting. The [advanced television] customers are coming from outside of the operator's own customer base," he added.
But true innovation may be one year or more away. Today, most of the applications that are being bandied about are the same ones MSOs have been promising customers for the past year-e-mail, Web browsing and video-on-demand.
That is because today, the Cable Television Laboratories Inc. middleware applications-platform interface specification is a still a work in progress, CableLabs senior director of advanced platforms and services Don Dulchinos said.
But PowerTV Inc. chief technology officer Ken Morse said the mere fact that one can run these types of applications from the middleware layer, instead of having to hardwire and build them inside the set-top box, is an innovation on its own.
"We've been talking about these things for a long time, true, but to be able to swap out applications-especially VOD-at the middleware level is big news for MSOs," Morse added.
So when will these applications roll out? Although he won't commit to a specific release date, Dulchinos said the first OpenCable-compliant set-top boxes should be rolling out by the holiday 2001 time frame.
In the meantime, MSOs should continue their advanced-applications rollouts with an eye toward the future, analysts said.
"There are some fine applications and middleware products rolling out today, but wait until we have a standard," Brumfield said.
"Microsoft [Corp.] is certainly being hammered for being a monopolist, but in truth, it was that single platform that enabled a lot of developers to write to a common de facto standard," she added. "The same thing is going to be true in the interactive-TV arena. You're not going to be able to create the same technology over and over again for six different platforms. If you want to see a lot of diversity, ultimately, there has to be a common frame."
Some of the middleware products that are in the field won't affect MSOs going forward because the technology will eventually be phased out. In fact, in some cases, this stopgap middleware helps MSOs to get more life out of a dying breed of boxes.
For example, OpenTV Inc. recently introduced a middleware product for Motorola Broadband Communications Sector's (formerly General Instrument Corp.) "DCT-2000" platform that allows MSOs to roll out multiple applications at once.
While this product isn't based on standards, most MSOs will phase them out over the next few years, anyway, eliminating any compatibility problems.
"I think we're in a special position because the standards organizations have neglected the low-cost boxes," OpenTV CTO Vincent Dureau said. "A lot of companies are offering single applications for the DCT-2000, but we can allow multiple apps to exist on the box."
One of the most promising technologies has been Sun Microsystems Inc.'s "Java." For its part, Sun has pushed "PersonalJava" technology as the basis of the set-top box middleware platform. Scientific-Atlanta Inc. subsidiary PowerTV is using the technology in its middleware offering, as are several other application providers.
Middleware providers said they understand the need for standards, and they will implement whatever technologies the resulting APIs happen to support. This is good news for MSOs that have already sunk millions of dollars into advanced set-tops.
One middleware vendor expressed hope, tempered by cynicism. "More than one standard is too many standards," Dureau said. "But I'm not completely convinced that middleware standards will be a reality."