Cable Television Laboratories Inc. said it is on track to finish writing the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) middleware specification for advanced, digital set-top boxes and digital televisions by the end of the year.
"We should have a pretty solid draft by then," said CableLabs vice president of advanced platforms and services Don Dulchinos.
In September, CableLabs announced it had selected Microsoft Corp., Liberate Technologies and Sun Microsystems Inc. as the primary authors of OCAP, with Sun handling the executable engine for interactive applications, and Microsoft and Liberate teaming up for the presentation engine.
Canal Plus U.S. Technologies, OpenTV Inc. and PowerTV Inc. are serving as "key" contributors to OCAP.
The OCAP standard is expected to give cable operators and equipment vendors further footing for retail distribution of portable digital set-top boxes. It will also enable interactive-television application developers to write to one middleware API (application program interface) instead of several operating-system APIs.
OCAP, as such, is essentially the software component of OpenCable. The hardware element involves credit card-sized point-of-deployment modules.
CableLabs barely beat a Federal Communications Commission deadline on July 1 when it certified PODs made by Motorola Broadband Communications Sector and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.
Though an OCAP draft appears to be reaching its final stages, Dulchinos said the amount of processing power and memory required to run Sun's "Java Virtual Machine" for the executable engine and an HTML (HyperText Markup Language) engine to run the presentation side still needs to be nailed down.
"I think it's pretty clear that the current generation for digital boxes are a little underpowered" for OCAP, Dulchinos said. Forthcoming next-generation boxes should more than fit the bill, he added.
Though OCAP is separate from the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) content standard, the specification's presentation engine will support it.
Generally speaking, OCAP will support ATVEF for "program-synchronous" information, Dulchinos said. That means displaying and running interactive "triggers" that are sent along with a television program.
The trigger, usually an Internet URL (Universal Resource Locator) address, moves in the vertical blanking interval of analog TV signals, or in the in/out-of-band region of digital channels.
As a founder of ATVEF, Microsoft, of course, remains a huge supporter of the technology.
"All we really want is openness. With ATVEF, we have that," said Microsoft TV vice president of marketing and sales Alan Yates.
Yates noted that Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) standards authorities, which govern such matters in Europe, have been negotiating for more than 18 months to open up ATVEF. It's been a different story in the U.S. "CableLabs has taken a very aggressive, fast approach, and we hope it holds up," Yates said.
Yates's hesitancy is directly related to the long-standing competitive angst between Microsoft and Sun, especially considering that CableLabs has licensed Sun's software as part of the OCAP spec.
By contrast, the DVB specified an executable engine to be written by Sun, but announced and released it before a license with the software maker was finalized.
It can be said that standards delays could generally benefit any company that pines for a time-to-market advantage with a product that winds up as a de facto standard.
Despite Sun's advancing role in cable, Yates said Microsoft's top guns remain committed to the industry.
"Bill [Gates] is more engaged than ever with the cable industry, satellite industry [and] telecommunications industry, because of the degree of change. He is very personally involved in working with AT&T," said Yates, who noted that the only big change surrounds CEO Steve Ballmer, who is more involved in Microsoft's day-to-day television issues.
Akin to DOCSIS, the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, CableLabs plans to run interoperability certification waves to ensure set-top boxes that run OCAP are up to snuff.
Dulchinos said the timing of the first OCAP certification waves depend largely on the vendors, but some initial interoperability tests might be conducted by the first quarter of 2001.
"We did several hardware interops before the first DOCSIS certification waves," he said, noting that the first few OCAP tests will strictly be "plug-fests" to determine how well systems work together.
Although the development of OCAP includes software players that are fighting each other for market share, development of the specification apparently hasn't yet caused misbehavior among a hotly competitive batch of suppliers.
"I'm pleased with the amount of work that's going into it and the relatively peaceful way it's proceeding," said Dulchinos, who added that most companies involved in the project have several senior executives involved in the OCAP working group. "We haven't come up against any real head-butting on any issues that could slow us down in any way."
"This process has been running very smoothly, considering how some of the processes in standards sometimes go," added Iain Hackett, director of ITV technology for the Microsoft TV Platform Group.
Hackett said 95 percent of the presentation engine is complete, but some components-particularly security-"aren't quite so far down the road."
OpenTV chief technical officer Vincent Dureau said his company brings knowledge to the OCAP table that his competitors don't have through its experience with the DVB standard.
"We're down to our fourth generation of middleware, while other middleware vendors are just beginning to ship theirs," he said.
OpenTV said recently that 11 million digital boxes contain its middleware, with roughly 700,000 of that number in the cable arena.
Though OCAP is making progress, PowerTV CTO Ken Morse remains cautious about how the standard will evolve from a paper specification.
PowerTV, whose operating system and middleware is deployed on more than 5 million set-tops, is working on about six sections of the OCAP spec, primarily in network interfaces for the presentation engine.
"What we believe very strongly is that you have to build an implementation of something before you ratify it," Morse said. "The implementation of that will make sure the specification has some substance.
"I've seen a lot of software specs by committee, then someone tries to build it, and they can't build it" as specified, he said.
Such a scenario would be problematic because of a risk that a vendor could first hit the market with its own implementation of the specification, tilting the balance of the competitive landscape.
"The cable industry cannot allow that to happen," Morse said. "I think that's what we're most vocal about when it comes to OCAP."