Fixating on the digital-cable promises of General
Instrument Corp., Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and the other usual suspects in the set-top
business may satisfy cable's near-term needs -- with an emphasis on "may."
But figuring out the longer-term broadband opportunity is
proving to be harder than anyone expected it to be. Even GI and S-A acknowledge the
difficulty in predicting market direction and building products for it.
Inevitably, the set-top will be part of a multimedia
environment, requiring technical versatility beyond today's infrastructure. In recent
years, cable has flirted with a variety of multimedia saviors and/or hopefuls, ranging
from MicroUnity Systems (with its mega-powerful processor that never materialized) to
Interaxx (an interactive-TV packager that migrated to a CD-in-set-top maker).
The latest wave of hopefuls (which you'll catch a glimpse
of in Anaheim, if you know which private suite to visit) includes visionaries who look
beyond linear entertainment and information and into the digital interactive world of
games and personalized entertainment.
This isn't just Sega Channel revisited.
For example, VM Labs is quietly showing its
"Nuon" technology, a games-oriented, embedded solution. Nuon transforms passive
digital-video products, such as digital set-top boxes (cable or satellite versions) or DVD
players, into interactive multimedia centers.
The Nuon operating system provides programmable processing
power to consumer-electronics products, replacing MPEG-2 chips with a new processor. At
the heart of the system is a board that will cost less than $20. It will provide video,
audio, 3-D graphics and Internet-access capability, as well as being able to run DVD
interactive and linear programming.
Nuon's founder and CEO, Richard Miller, says he has trotted
his prototype around to the big cable set-top makers and the largest MSOs, most of which
politely listened but remained noncommittal about using his technology.
Meanwhile, Motorola has not only signed a nonexclusive
license to develop, manufacture and sell systems based on the Nuon technology, but it has
also invested unspecified funding in the company. The Nuon technology will be an
"integral part of Motorola's 'Blackbird' TV set-top hardware," the companies
Thomson Consumer Electronics has also signed on as a
licensee, intending to use Nuon's technology in satellite boxes and DVD players starting
in 1999. And Toshiba, the largest maker of DVD players, will switch to Nuon's system in
next year's run of DVD devices, Miller claims.
Nuon (called merely "Project X" during its first
four years of life -- the new moniker appeared last month) is a prototypical Silicon
Valley start-up. Its 50-person staff includes 45 engineers and technical geeks.
Miller -- himself a veteran of Apple and other
high-profile, tech-driven firms -- dreams that Nuon will attain a multimedia cachet
similar to the niche that Dolby has in audio systems. Indeed, he named the company VM Labs
(when he couldn't legally obtain the name, "Video Media Labs") in part to mimic
the Dolby Labs approach to licensing high-end technology.
Nuon's fate depends on many competitive factors. In part,
its approach runs head-on into that of C-Cube, another multimedia-processor supplier that
the cable industry has cozied up to in recent months.
Nuon's alliances with game-software developers put its
focus on the stand-alone DVD platform -- for now. (More than 50 video-game companies have
acquired Nuon development kits to begin creating material, due out in the next couple of
Nuon is not alone in seeking broadband tie-ins. Media
Station, which is developing processes for delivering real-time interactive CD-ROM
products via the Internet, is also preparing to launch its service in January. The
start-up -- with roots in Wisconsin and California -- recognizes the value of broadband
delivery for its media-rich games and entertainment content.
Again, the availability of enhanced set-top equipment to
enable the multimedia experience is critical.
And NCI (the Oracle/Navio venture) -- hardly a shrinking
violet -- continues to push its Internet-centric broadband box. Its recent -- but very
low-key -- test with @Home hints at a multiple-media approach that brings @Home's
streaming video closer to a TV-programming-on-demand model.
The NCI/@Home collaboration also integrates TV and Internet
content -- a convergence through the set-top box that opens the door for future nonlinear
programming beyond the visions of today's digital-cable "simplicity."
These are the kinds of things that will make viewers look
at the TV set in a whole new way. But it won't be easy. Nor is the impact of allied
products -- such as DVD -- predictable.
While forecasters envision 2 million to 4 million DVD
players going into homes in the next 18 months (along with a price drop into the $200
range), predictions are fuzzy about whether these devices will arrive to replace VCRs as
viewing machines, or whether they will be embedded in PCs (replacing CD-ROMs) or in other
kinds of visual appliances.
Cable operators and entrenched manufacturers are aware of
the options, and of their power as bottlenecks in the development of full multimedia
packages. Whether the eventual devices are "entertainment appliances" or some
other product depends on the barriers now being established -- and on the demand for
alternative approaches that Nuon, Media Station, NCI and others are trying to create.
I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen is awed at companies with
a 9-to-1 geek ratio.