TCI Picks More OpenCable Parts

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Tele-Communications Inc.'s grand plan for OpenCabledigital set-tops came into focus last week, as three separate events clarified keysoftware and microprocessing decisions that the MSO will require.

The combined result of the separate, but connected, movesis that TCI will use operating systems made by Sun Microsystems Inc. and Sony ElectronicsInc., as well as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE. Also, TCI's key hardware vendor,General Instrument Corp., will use microprocessors made by Santa Clara, Calif.-basedQuantum Effect Design Inc.

Last Tuesday, TCI chairman and CEO John Malone andpresident and chief operating officer Leo J. Hindery Jr. bemoaned the MSO's positionof being caught between software rivals Microsoft and Sun, but they said negotiations withboth companies are still on track.

In January, TCI announced a plan to use 5 million copies ofMicrosoft's Windows CE, as well as Sun's PersonalJava software, as"middleware" in the 15 million OpenCable boxes that it will start deploying nextyear.

Last Wednesday, TCI senior vice president David Beddow toldreporters at a Cable Television Laboratories Inc. press briefing that operating systemsdeveloped by Sony and Sun will also fall into the mix, noting that OpenCable boxes willrepresent a continuum of functionality that requires different types of operating systems.

Also last Wednesday, in a separate announcement, GI -- thelead set-top hardware vendor for TCI, with a hard order for 6.9 million units and a nodfor another 8 million -- announced its selection of QED for its MIPS-based (millions ofinstructions per second) microprocessor.

TCI and GI have repeatedly expressed their desire for a220-plus MIPS solution, but they have declined to identify silicon vendors, except topublicly shut Intel Corp. out of the race in comments last month.

Another separate announcement last week, originating fromSun's "JavaOne" developers' conference in San Francisco, marked theofficial debut of the new, real-time operating system that TCI will likely use in itsadvanced digital set-tops.

During a phone briefing last Tuesday evening, Troy Toman,group marketing manager for Sun's Embedded System Software group, said the new"JavaOS" real-time operating system is targeted not just for set-tops, but alsofor consumer-electronics devices like Web phones and network computers.

"But in general, one of our key target deploymentplatforms is the digital set-tops," Toman said.

At CableLabs, Beddow said TCI will use Sony's"Perios" and Sun's "Chorus" JavaOS operating systems, in additionto 5 million copies of Windows CE.

"The advantage of a Perios or a Chorus is the factthat it uses a much smaller memory footprint, and it's a real-time operatingsystem," Beddow said, noting that both options sit in about 500 kilobytes of set-topmemory.

The real-time aspects make the Sun and Sony choices betterfor twitch-type interactive games and future Internet-protocol applications like videotelephony, which requires immediate and real-time processing.

The decision by TCI to add Sun and Sony to theoperating-system vendor list stems more from a stated goal to support multiple productsthan from any problems in turning its letter of intent with Microsoft into a hard order,Beddow said.

Hindery said, "There are elements of animosity withinthat community [Sun/Microsoft] that we're still trying to work through, [but] we haveno sense that these two arrangements aren't going forward exactly asnegotiated."

Malone added, "The most challenging thing is to makesure that we get the various software interests to work, instead of to use us as anextension of the battleground for their wars in the PC [personal-computer] world."

Toman said JavaOS was built to include industry standards,like TCP-IP (telecommunications protocol/Internet protocol) and HTML (HyperText MarkupLanguage), and it can be easily customized to handle set-top functions like tuner control,electronic program guides and information carried in the vertical-blanking interval.

"Our intent is to take the basic JavaOS and to providesoftware suites specifically targeted at interactive-TV applications," he said.

On the chip front, QED will supply GI with its RM5230 MIPSRISC microprocessor -- a 64-bit chip with a 32-bit system-bus interface designed toprovide "work-station-class performance at an affordable price" for consumerapplications, QED executives said.

The chip is a low-cost derivative of the chips that QEDsupplies for use in Silicon Graphics Inc. work stations, as well as in some printers andarcade games.

Denton Kanouff, vice president of marketingfor GI's Digital Network Systems division, said GI picked QED because it provided thebest price/performance chip for the DCT-5000 advanced digital platform. 

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