High-speed-data provider Road Runner and its MSO
constituents, Time Warner Cable and MediaOne, are solidifying their national-content mix
by relying heavily on system-level Web developers.
Despite Time Warner's potential to put its powerful
media properties to use in creating broadband-enhanced content, the primary wellsprings of
content innovation so far have been separate teams of Web-spinners at Time Warner's
and MediaOne's local systems. Time Warner and MediaOne recently agreed to merge their
respective Road Runner and MediaOne Express high-speed-data services, under the Road
The applications resulting from those efforts could become
templates for the combined Road Runner group in the months ahead, executives said last
"In effect, we can use these [local] markets as test
beds by allowing our people to try out ideas that they believe might be compelling
applications," said Sean Callahan, vice president and executive producer of Time
Warner's Road Runner branch.
Under the still-evolving arrangements between Time Warner
and MediaOne -- which include a search for a CEO and several lieutenants -- local content
will remain in the hands of local MSO data teams, noted Kelly Ruebel, director of
marketing and sales at MediaOne Express. But, she added, this doesn't mean that good
ideas with applicability across multiple markets won't be adopted for use by all
affiliates of the venture.
MediaOne's content work to date includes equity
investments in several content and technology entities that should add compelling options
to the Road Runner service, Ruebel noted.
For example, like rival high-speed-data service @Home
Network, MediaOne is an equity partner in start-up Arepa Inc., which developed technology
that lets users interact with CD-ROM multimedia content stored at a remote server, with no
loss of interaction speeds or functionality.
"We're testing with Arepa now, but we
haven't gone as far as @Home," Ruebel said.
@Home is testing the technology using 25 titles, including
games, reference and education packages. An @Home/Arepa trial is slated for this fall,
probably in Fremont, Calif.
Another MediaOne partner is Quokka Sports, a new supplier
of content focused on nonmainstream sports, such as extreme endurance racing, bicycle
races and boating.
Some investments, such as MediaOne's in Quokka, will
remain centered at the MSO level, but that content will also be available to Road Runner,
Ruebel noted. Other MediaOne equity affiliations with national-content implications
include CBS SportsLine, Women's Wire, StudentNet and Interactive Pictures Inc.
(Ipix), the latter of which is also an equity affiliate of Time Warner.
Ipix's technology -- first used in conjunction with
high-speed access at Time Warner's Albany, N.Y., system -- allows end-users to
explore a scene as though they were physically there, "turning" seamlessly
through a site 360 degrees. Used in Albany to provide customers with access to a local
museum's display rooms, the "photobubble" technology is now being applied
in Time Warner's Memphis, Tenn., and San Diego systems, Callahan noted.
"We're working on a walk-through of Balboa Park
and the Timken Museum," as well as on the Monet exhibit at the San Diego Museum of
Art, said Ron James, online editor and Webmaster at Road Runner San Diego.
MediaOne has yet to introduce the technology at any of its
local sites, but it did develop a demonstration of its potential as an e-commerce vehicle
in a virtual shopping mall.
Other potential local-to-national content shifts include a
video e-mail service, a multimedia event calendar offering video clips of upcoming local
attractions and a forthcoming "virtual radio" traffic and weather service
featuring live video feeds from traffic helicopters.
"We've been given a lot of freedom to experiment,
which makes this an exciting place to be," James said. "Working with local
[content] suppliers who have good ideas gives the people at the national level a chance to
explore possibilities that might not otherwise cross their paths, and to see what works
and what doesn't."
Like many new broadband applications, the video e-mail
service offered in San Diego makes use of technology that is already in the market -- in
this case through locally based Cubic Corp. The Cubic system, consisting of a video camera
and software, allows the user to go into e-mail, record an audio/video message and attach
the file for transmission just like any other file.
By marketing the system to Road Runner customers at a $20
discount from the $169 package price, the service provider is offering a value enhancement
to its data service, but it otherwise has no role in the video e-mail component, James
The San Diego system's new local-events calendar is
another application that could be widely replicated within the Road Runner domain.
James' team is using streamed audio/video content to offer customers a chance to
sample the style of a local rock band before going out to a club, or to look at a clip
from a locally produced play or a special-release movie that's not in general
"The arts and entertainment community is going crazy
over the opportunity that this gives them to publicize events," James said.
MediaOne Express' local Web developers are also
beginning to add video shoots to their tasks, Ruebel said, often going to local
high-school games or other events to take pictures that are made available over the
service's "Close to Home" local sites.
"We have more than 30 journalists writing local
content in our markets, and some of these people are now going out armed with digital
cameras and video cameras," she said.
At Time Warner's Road Runner operation in Portland,
Maine, one of the broadband-enhanced innovations is a multimedia mapping system offered in
CD-ROM and Internet formats by Dolorme Inc., which is based in nearby Freeport. By
sometime in August, Road Runner customers accessing the Portland events calendar will be
able to use the locally stored map database to retrieve directions to the "event of
the day," said Will Kreth, editorial director for services at the Portland cable
Road Runner customers can currently access the Delorme
online map from a local server, gaining access to far richer graphic displays than what is
possible over dial-up phone modems, Kreth said. In addition, users equipped with Microsoft
Corp.'s Internet Explorer 4.0 browser, or with other browsers that are enhanced to
use Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java software "applets," can navigate in
point-and-click mode through 17 levels of resolution, from the 20,000-mile level, to the
local neighborhood, to any point in the United States, Kreth said.
From Road Runner's perspective, local experiments
require that developers be willing to cover contingencies that might arise in cases where
the content creates customer-service problems, Callahan said.
"Developers have to commit to responding to customer
calls, because some of these applications can turn out to be quite troublesome, from a
customer-service point of view," if an application doesn't work on all
personal-computer platforms, or if other problems arise, he added.