Sun Microsystems Inc. has created a new developer support
program to aggressively woo more cable-oriented adherents to its Java TV interactive
television software platform.
The company announced that Liberate Technologies Inc. and
OpenTV Inc., two interactive software developers that already had close relationships with
Sun, are the first members of its Java TV Solutions Partners Program.
Sun will provide what it calls significant technical,
marketing and sales support for companies participating in the program, aside from access
to software code and other assistance provided to Java TV licensees.
The JavaTV application programming interface is an
extension of Sun's Java platform, intended to enable software developers to write
applications for advanced and interactive TV services that will work with a variety of
set-top platforms, microprocessors and operating systems. Such functionality might include
Web browsing, electronic commerce and datacasting, or applications that enable viewers to
select multiple camera angles of a sporting event.
Liberate and OpenTV will integrate Java technologies into
their software solutions, such as set-top box operating systems or, in Liberate's
case, its DTV Navigator set-top middleware and server software that will enable an
operator to serve Java-based content to customers through their digital set-tops.
Eric Chu, Sun's group manager of vertical markets,
said the company is stepping up its support of JavaTV software developers so it can
quickly pull together a suite of Java-based solutions for cable operators that want to use
Sun as part of an end-to-end solution.
Such support is seen as critical for such vendors as OpenTV
and Liberate, who are competing directly against giant Microsoft Corp. in the set-top
space. Sun is the primary shareholder in OpenTV and made a significant equity investment
in Liberate earlier this year.
"We're not only competing with Microsoft for
interactive services, but also for mindshare among MSOs for other things they could be
doing," like TV Internet access and video on demand, said Dave Limp, Liberate's
senior vice president of corporate development. "We want to show them they can make a
lot of money off of this stuff."
To highlight its imperative for bringing Java TV solutions
to market quickly, Sun said companies could participate in the partner program only if
they have plans to deploy a Java-based client or server product during the next year.
"This is a real serious commitment, because we'll
be committing resources to them and in some cases will try to help them sell their
solutions to customers," Chu said. "We don't want any tire kickers."
Under the new arrangement, Liberate said it would embed
Sun's Jini connection technology and JavaTV APIs into its software solutions. Limp
said that would enable creation of applications that might have been difficult to write
Language, such as interactive board games.
"Time to market on a Java-based solution will be
dramatically increased," said Limp of the company's participation in the
partners program. "Now, we're getting absolute engineering assistance from Sun,
instead of just code drops and things we were getting as a Java licensee."
Comcast Corp. and MediaOne Group Inc. agreed to license
Liberate's set-top middleware and headend software to support their planned rollouts
of interactive TV services. Other major MSOs that have invested in Liberate, as well as
AT&T Broadband and Internet Services, are also exploring use of the company's
software. However, Liberate expects deployments to begin sooner in international markets.
"You'll see us roll out the first truly
interactive digital-TV services based on the Internet later this year in the U.K.,"
Limp said. "Realistically, the first deployments in the United States won't be
until next year. That's more a statement that it took longer to get the deals done,
and still most of the US cable MSOs are undecided, than it is that the technology
Chu said interest in Java TV has increased in Europe since
this month's IFA show in Amsterdam, where Sun staged its first live demonstrations of
satellite-broadcast content and Java TV applications running on set-tops from several
different manufacturers, including Philips Electronics, Sony and Panasonic.
"Service providers are realizing this is real,"
he said. "The demos really helped open their eyes and see what's possible."
Sun's announcement coincided with Cable Television
Laboratories Inc.'s release of its request for proposals by software developers for
OpenCable interactive applications software.
Specifically, the RFP seeks middleware solutions that will
work with multiple software operating systems, enabling deployment of advanced such
applications as Web browsing, e-mail and electronic program guides to cable customers
through any OpenCable-compliant digital set-top box and on any cable system in the U.S.
Major MSOs such as AT&T, MediaOne and Time Warner
Cable, have emphasized that they will rely on multiple vendors for the key elements of
their advanced two-way cable systems, increasing the need for portability of devices such
as digital set-top boxes from one system to another.
The CableLabs RFP is intended as an open process for
choosing a vendor for middleware APIs instead of having the industry write its own -- an
alternative that created some controversy in the cable ranks among operators wary that a
single, dominant vendor would win out.
Jim Chiddix, chief technical officer for Time Warner Cable,
said selecting existing APIs from a specific company would fast-track the process of
working middleware APIs into the OpenCable specifications, a must for operators who are
trying to quickly create a retail set-top market.
"In theory we can sit down and write those ourselves
if we had years to spend contemplating the very complex kinds of software systems we
need," Chiddix said. "We don't have years. We want to get some retail and
the ability to run interactive applications on retail devices as soon as we can."