The cable industry's determination to leverage the
computer-software wars to its maximum advantage paid another dividend last week with an
agreement by Sun Microsystems Inc. to license its PersonalJava application program
interface to Scientific-Atlanta Inc.
The pact, which followed a previously announced licensing
agreement between Sun and Tele-Communications Inc., sets the stage for the inclusion of
PersonalJava in the OpenCable protocols for interactive TV. The cable industry hopes that
OpenCable will become standardized through the International Standards Organization, said
Allen Ecker, president of subscriber systems at S-A.
"There's a good chance now of getting PersonalJava
into OpenCable," Ecker said.
PersonalJava potentially expands the richness of
interactive services with more enhanced graphics and functionality.
Moreover, Ecker said, the availability of the middleware in
the OpenCable platform means that operators will be able to exploit applications developed
across a wide range of consumer devices that will run PersonalJava in the future, such as
screen phones and game boxes.
But while PersonalJava would greatly expand the
functionality of the OpenCable middleware, operators don't appear to be in any rush to put
it to use in their initial rollouts of digital services. Instead, they see it as an option
that they can exploit over time to ensure that new advanced features will operate in any
operating-system environment, which is one of the key benefits offered by Java-programmed
"We're not sure that there's going to be any immediate
flood of applications that will make Java necessary to us in the near term, but we believe
that it could be useful in the long run," said James Chiddix, senior vice president
of engineering and technology at Time Warner Cable.
"We're still in the very exploratory stages regarding
the software environment that we'll use with the Explorer set-tops," said Dave
Andersen, vice president of public affairs for Cox Communications Inc., which sources said
encouraged the S-A/Sun licensing agreement.
Andersen declined to comment on the potential usefulness of
PersonalJava, saying that it was too early to speculate at this stage about Cox's
It remains to be seen whether Sun's ambitious goals for
PersonalJava in the consumer market will be realized, but it's a good idea for cable to
have the option of tapping into that application flow, Chiddix said.
"We've long been proponents of open standards, because
we very much want to make our set-top-box decisions independent of specific processors or
operating systems," Chiddix added. "This [licensing agreement] is a step in that
So far, the middleware features embraced by OpenCable
an optional scripting language from Sun that can be used by developers in creating
instruction sets for their programs. These components are sufficient for delivering
services that include such interactive capabilities as Web browsing, video-on-demand,
enhanced TV programming and much else.
S-A will be able to add the Sun software as a
feature-enhancing "middleware" layer to its end-to-end interactive
digital-system platform, including the interface elements within its Explorer 2000 digital
set-tops without adding "significant" costs to the boxes, Ecker said.
S-A was able to negotiate the license on favorable terms,
because "it works out in Sun's favor to have PersonalJava promoted through a
wide-reaching platform like OpenCable," he added.
S-A will be able to download the PersonalJava API, which
links server-based applications to the underlying operating system, into the RAM
(random-access memory) chips of Explorer 2000 boxes that are shipped between now and the
fall, Ecker said.
Thereafter, PersonalJava -- which has also been licensed by
PowerTV Inc., the supplier of the Explorer 2000 operating system -- will be included in
the ROM (read-only memory) of the set-tops.
Java-based development of services for the consumer market,
especially as they pertain to interactive-TV applications, has been extremely limited,
noted Jon Haass, vice president of marketing at OpenTV Inc., a supplier of interactive-TV
software that has also licensed PersonalJava and that is working closely with Sun in
responding to the OpenCable RFP (request for proposals) issued late last year by TCI.
"Today, there is no common framework for developing in
the TV space," Haass said, even though Java has been available as a programming
language for three years.
This is because Sun is still defining the consumer-oriented
PersonalJava API, which means that providers of Java-based development tools have had to
supply their own proprietary implementations of the APIs for consumer applications, adding
uncertainty to the creative environment. Sun is committed to completing the specifications
for a common API by this fall, but Haass said it will be well into 1999 before cable
companies can begin offering PersonalJava-based services.