In a struggling market for interactive-television applications, one company is spearheading an effort to create a standard that literally gets the message across to ITV subscribers.
But will the effort deliver a standards message to the industry, or will it prove to be simply a marketing maneuver?
Backed primarily by ITV software provider Comverse Technology Inc., the TVXML Forum's goal is to promote a TV-specific Extensible Markup Language (XML) as a standard method for two-way communications, such as chat and instant messaging.
The forum kicked off at the National Show last month, claiming some 50 or 60 initial company members — including vendors and MSOs — although it has yet to publish its membership list.
It plans to call for draft specifications in September, and by January hopes to submit a TVXML specification to international standards bodies, including the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
TVXML would provide the communications layer on top of the digital set-top box middleware for messaging and data, provisioning and billing. It can direct how many messages will be retrieved from the server, the size of headers, the number of headers to retrieve and how to display the identification code for messages, among other things.
It also will build upon other standards efforts including Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s OpenCable initiative, according to Ezra Mizrahi, vice president of product management and strategic marketing at Comverse's TVGate ITV messaging unit.
"We also got acknowledgment from the industry as well as analysts that TVXML is the only standard today that deals with the communications aspects," Mizrahi noted. "It opens the infrastructure to new opportunities for operators who are using these types of middleware and set-top boxes."
In addition to developing a white paper for TVXML, an early priority for the forum is to firm up its leadership.
"We need to team up with some industry leaders, I am talking about some prominent middleware vendors," Mizrahi said. "So we see a real acknowledgment from this type of vendor that they are looking very, very favorably at joining forces with this initiative."
LIBERATE IS IN
That includes Liberate Technologies Inc., which plans to take part in the forum, according to vice president of product and solutions marketing Herve Utheza. Liberate would benefit because it would encourage more content applications over the long run.
"As middleware vendors, we are delighted to see that the content industry is trying to organize itself to make it easier to develop interactive applications," he said. "That's a good thing for everybody."
But the industry needs to make clear what it is trying to do with the standards, he cautioned.
"Otherwise, together as an industry, we will be confusing the broadcasters, the programmers and the network operators," he said. "So I think we are in that phase right now of the very formative objective of what those XML efforts try to do."
Reaction elsewhere was a bit more lukewarm.
CableLabs, the cable industry's own standards-development consortium, did contact the TVXML Forum to gain more information, but it is "not involved in that effort," said vice president of advanced platforms and services Don Dulchinos.
"It's orthogonal; you can go ahead and do that independent of what we are doing, and it may be down the road everybody adopts that way of doing messaging and that's great, if it is consistent with the cable platform," Dulchinos said. "CableLabs doesn't do anything in the applications layer.
"We are at the lower layer, at the middleware and the operating systems, so that could very well coexist. We don't know enough whether they have really thought about it."
Another major obstacle to the forum may be the market itself. Aside from VOD, U.S. cable operators have largely put advanced ITV applications on the back burner.
But there are some indications that could be changing, Mizrahi argued.
"Messaging applications are something we are going to see in the near future here," he said. "The U.S. market is something like a half a year to a year behind the European market, but we see some movement by the MSOs and the DBS providers, and I see really a good future for this."