Technology '04-Play: It's OCAP Middleware - Multichannel

Technology '04-Play: It's OCAP Middleware

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This being the last "translation" of the year, it seems useful to revisit something that looks like a vigorous technology for 2004.

The something is OCAP, which is short for "OpenCable Applications Platform." It re-entered the industrial lexicon (technologists have been at it since 1997) at the recent Western Show, when CEOs Brian Roberts and Glenn Britt (of Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable, respectively) highlighted its relevance during an opening general session.

Also at Western, a Colorado-based entity, Vidiom Systems, delivered a useful, two-hour OCAP tutorial. (If you missed it, fear not: The company is planning more seminars in 2004.) And, on the floor, Vidiom finally emerged from the cone of silence to show its work with Time Warner Cable. The demo involved an OCAP-based navigational system (the new way of saying "the guide.")

Nothing drives innovation quite so much as necessity. Without a common software environment, like OCAP, it'll be difficult to go much further on the two-way part of the plug-and-play agreement.

OCAP is "middleware" software — a dubious distinction, to be sure. Few terms take the brain so immediately to bewilderment. In part, that's because middleware is not specific to this industry, its set-top boxes, or anything else.

Example: In the December-January issue of MIT Technology Review, IBM Corp. took out four full-page ads, all dedicated to middleware. Each showed photos of various everyday life/work scenarios: The information-exchange part of a fender bender; the administrivia of getting a mortgage. All ran under the same heading: "Middleware is everywhere: Can you see it?"

The fender-bender photo shows people hunkered over their handheld gadgets. A policeman verifies insurance coverage. Nearby, someone files an electronic claim. A third person gets a repair estimate, and a fourth orders a replacement bumper. Accident Girl gets notification of settlement.

All on the spot: Wreck, settle, same day.

The point of the picture is to show that "middleware" is invisibly everywhere. It's the unseen software glue that runs on all sorts of consumer and business gizmos. It allows them to talk understandably to each other, so that specific actions can occur electronically.

OCAP's intent is to do that for cable entertainment on cable-ready devices, be they set-tops or cable-ready consumer gadgets. It's happening in distinct phases. OpenCable and the CableCARD slot/card paved the way for set-tops and cable-ready devices sold at retail — step one. OCAP goes a step further, to make portable the services that run on those devices.

Which brings us to the translation: What is OCAP these days?

OCAP is a software layer. It sits above an incumbent operating system (PowerTV for Scientific-Atlanta Inc.; VxWorks or VRTX for Motorola Inc.), and below the applications (like the guide, or on-demand selections, or clickable things that come with a specific TV program).

For OCAP 1.0 to run much beyond video, it needs an 8-by-16 Megabyte memory footprint (where the "8" is flash memory, and the "16" is dynamic random-access memory, or DRAM) In processing oomph, it needs at least a 130-MHz processor, but faster is better.

Much of the installed base falls below the bare minimum, which makes OCAP 1.0 a thing for new, medium to high-end set-tops and consumer devices.

OCAP 1.0 includes three main things.

First is a Java Virtual Machine, or "JVM," translated in the Nov. 19, 2001 edition (http://www.translation-please.com/2001/1119_dvb_mhp.html). The purpose of a JVM is to "unfold and run" interactive applications. Technologists also call this the "executable engine."

Second is a set of Java "packages," which is Java-speak for the software executables which enable the application program interfaces, or APIs. APIs are the programming calls available to developers when creating applications — like the work shown by Vidiom.

Lastly, OCAP 1.0 needs a mechanism for applying business policies. Some, like Vidiom, call this "the monitor application" (translated in the Sept. 2002 edition, at http://www.translation-please.com/2002/0902_monitor.html), and have built standalone and suite-type versions of the code. Others wonder if the business policy stuff couldn't be handled by the guide, as part of its background processing. The matter is unresolved.

Wherever and however it winds up, a monitor needs to be there to allocate resources, handle software downloads, and manage the many details of incoming applications.

Some applications are "bound," for example, meaning that they come in via a specific program network. (Comcast likes to use the example of "voting someone off the island.")

Other applications are "unbound," meaning they have no specific correlation to a TV show in progress. The guide is an example, as is VOD selection, or any of the "walled garden" applications of the recent ITV past.

That's the current events of OCAP. It may not rock worlds in 2004, but at the least it'll start to take shape as a way to bind cable services into consumer products.

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