Sony Eyes Entry Into OpenCable Race


Sony Electronics Corp.'s semiconductor group believes
that it has found a way to enter the OpenCable sweepstakes with a hardware architecture
that can be leveraged across many other platforms, as well.

The group, part of Sony Electronics Co. of America, is
developing a QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) chip to round out the suite of chips
necessary for OpenCable applications, said Vishwanath Nayak, the group's director of
marketing for consumer audio/video digital products.

The other chip components in the system architecture --
including an MPEG-2 decoder chip and a two-chip tuner chip set -- are already complete,
putting the company on track to compete for the OEM (original-equipment manufacturer)
business across the set-top-manufacturing sector.

The key attraction in Sony's approach is the fact that
the core hardware components work with software interfaces that allow them to be used in a
wide range of consumer-electronics products. These include DVD (digital versatile disk)
players, satellite receivers and multiple types of set-tops, including the European DVB
(digital video broadcast) model, Nayak said.

'We're using a very distributed-architecture
approach, where new features can be added in hardware as customer requirements
evolve,' he said. 'As long as customers program to our APIs [applications
program interfaces], they don't have to worry about changes in hardware, which keeps
their investments to a minimum.'

The company has devised an embedded, real-time
operating-system kernel, known as the 'NanoOS,' to manage operations within each
chip. An API, or set of software protocols in the NanoOS, allows the individual chips to
interact with the primary processor of the set-top to perform tasks in compliance with the
OpenCable protocols, or with whatever other system protocols are in use.

These software controls allow for tight integration of data
feeds from different sources and mixing of applications in whatever ways the overall
system design calls for, Nayak explained.

For example, synchronizing a video stream from the
cable-programming side with an online feed and coordinating ad insertion and graphic
displays between the two streams can be done through this modular approach, rather than
requiring manufacturers to design chips to support this level of integration.

The NanoOS approach supports interoperability with multiple
types of operating systems in the central processor and multiple middleware architectures.
It also allows much of the add-on functionality features associated with MPEG decoding and
other chip tasks that have traditionally been provided by the host CPU (central processing
unit) in the set-top to be performed within the individual chips, thereby freeing up
additional processing power in the CPU, Nayak noted.

'Any digital set-top box design can be implemented
quickly by using consistent APIs and the NanoOS customization capabilities,' he

Distributed-architectural approaches to digital set-tops
are not new, having been part of the original Silicon Graphics Inc. MIPS design in the
boxes developed for Time Warner Cable's Full Service Network project in Orlando, Fla.

Now, Scientific-Atlanta Inc. is making use of the
distributed-architecture concept in conjunction with Sun Microsystems Inc.'s
Microsparc CPU in its Explorer 2000 boxes.

'We use our hardware graphics accelerator not only for
the graphics requirements, but also to off-load some of the specific
communications-processing requirements from the CPU,' said Bill Wall, chief scientist
for digital technology at S-A.

NextLevel Systems Inc. -- notwithstanding the fact that
Sony is a new partner in NextLevel -- will be branding its boxes as Sony boxes for retail

But Sony's creation of Digital Network Solutions of
America as a unit with Sony Electronics clearly doesn't hurt the semiconductor
unit's chances of becoming a supplier for the new boxes.

The DNSA unit closely integrates the activities within Sony
Electronics with DNSA's parent unit, which is the new Digital Network Solutions Co.
that oversees digital-network-related businesses and, as such, that is the point group in
the working relationship between NextLevel and Sony.

NextLevel will be building the boxes to the specifications
developed by Tele-Communications Inc., which has said that its design will be
OpenCable-compliant. Handling all of the potential service applications that the MSO has
in mind within low-cost parameters will require innovative hardware architecture, as well
as high-performing software to free up the processing power of the CPU to maximum

'OpenCable is a very volatile spec at this point, with
a lot of elements unclear,' Nayak said. 'With TCI pushing ahead, its approach
could become the reference design that everybody builds to.'