Broadband competition from high above and on the ground has created a sense of urgency for incumbent cable operators looking to roll out a suite of compelling but easily deployable interactive-television applications.
To help ease that transition, ITV software and application vendors such as PowerTV Inc. WorldGate Communications Inc., OpenTV Corp., Liberate Technologies Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are bolstering their relationships with content developers.
Those companies are providing outlines on writing for their operating systems and middleware platforms and on how to build "plug-and-play" applications for advanced digital cable set-top boxes.
PowerTV, a wholly owned subsidiary of Scientific-Atlanta Inc., shared that message with about 110 ITV content developers in late October, during the company's second annual "PowerPartners" conference in Palo Alto, Calif.
PowerTV's OS, which features a middleware layer and an HTML (HyperText Markup Language) engine to support Java and PersonalJava, is currently deployed in roughly 4.6 million set-top boxes worldwide, including those built by Pioneer New Media Technologies Inc., Pace Micro Technology plc and Panasonic Consumer Electronics.
In North America, PowerTV systems have been rolled out by Time Warner Cable in Honolulu, New York and Orlando, Fla.; Cox Communications Inc. in Phoenix, Las Vegas and San Diego; Charter Communications Inc. in Los Angeles; Le Groupe Videotron Ltée. in Montreal; and Rogers Communications Inc. in Ontario.
Elsewhere, PowerTV has deployment deals in place with Metropolis Cable in Chile and NTL Inc. in the United Kingdom.
"To make sure cable can match the competition, the interactive applications you are creating need to be plug-and-play," PowerTV CEO Steve Necessary told developers. "We need integrated solutions withàla carte choices for cable MSOs."
At the same time, ITV developers must focus on the value proposition for MSOs and their subscribers, Necessary added.
"We can trust Moore's Law to help make set-top boxes cheaper and faster, but the network must be reliable and robust, such as with in-band IP [Internet protocol]," he said. "The kiss of death for interactive TV would be down time from system failures."
PowerTV CTO Ken Morse said his company's 4.0 HTML engine, which will include support for frames and forms, will be ready next year. Down the road, PowerTV expects to introduce MPEG-4 (Moving Picture Expert Group) support to control video objects.
"PowerTV OS 2.3" was launched in August with such improvements as resource sharing for multiple application support and a common registry for data shared among applications, product manager Bob Gager said.
In the meantime, PowerTV this year will offer OS upgrades for S-A "Explorer" boxes code-named "Allen," "Aykroyd," "Baldwin" and "Beatty." These will include ATVEF (Advanced Television Enhancement Forum) compliance, a scalable font engine, multiple tuners, removable Macromedia Inc. "Flash" memory and in-box support for universal serial bus, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers' IEE-1394 "firewire" interface, MP3 audio, three-dimensional graphics, digital video recorders and high-definition television.
Dozens of developers in attendance-including representatives from such new and established companies as Andersen Consulting, Digital 2 Me, Intellocity USA Inc., Eastman Kodak Co., MetaTV, nGame, QVC Inc., TiVo Inc., Watchpoint and ZAQ-took note.
"We learned a lot about the interactive-TV market and where it's heading," said Marshal Perlman, product manager for TestQuest, which makes testing technology for set-top boxes. "Compared to Europe, we have a lot of catching up to do."
Said Commerce.TV Corp. director of marketing Evan Saks, "Since the PowerTV OS is integrated into a middleware layer, we can avoid the complication of working with multiple middleware providers, like we must do on the (Motorola Broadband Communications Sector) DCT boxes."
"We came away with a much better understanding of how to port the assets we have developed on the Web into the interactive-TV space," said Dargan Coggeshall, business development manager for BoxerJam, which develops multiplayer game shows.
These and other developers had kiosks in the PowerTV section of the S-A booth at last month's Western Show.
OpenTV also hosted a kiosk to show off applications from its "OpenRoad" initiative, which now boasts about 660 members. About 270 developers participated in an earlier conference in New York.
Additional conferences will be offered this year in San Francisco, Australia and France.
"Developers with backgrounds in multimedia and the Web come to conferences like ours to get educated about interactive TV trends before they start developing for the interactive TV marketplace," said Roshi Yousefi, director of developer relations for OpenAdvantage.
Liberate had signed up 40 members when it announced its "PopTV" developers program at the 1999 Western Show, said vice president of marketing Charlie Tritschler. Since then, PopTV has brought more than 1,500 additional developers on board.
Mixed Signals, a developer that builds interactive versions of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, recently became the first content provider certified for Liberate-enabled set-tops.
A selection of PopTV partners exhibited their wares at Liberate's Western Show booth, but there was no conference.
"PopTV does not need to hold educational conferences, because Liberate is based on open Internet standards," Tritschler said.
Microsoft has more than 1,000 content, tools and application developers on board through the company's Microsoft TV Partners Program, said Ed Graczyk, director of the Microsoft TV platform. Conferences are held throughout the year around the world, with the last one held at this year's IBC show in Amsterdam.
Microsoft also hosted a number of application developers at the Western Show, Graczyk said.
WorldGate also has a Certified Developer Program, which touts at least 14 members, including Beyond Z, Commerce.TV, Flying Colors, Intellocity, MetaTV, Mixed Signals, and Respond TV Inc., which is also a Liberate partner.
OPEN AT WORLDGATE
"The content developed by certified WorldGate partners will use non-proprietary open IP standards, so their content will play across multiple ITV platforms," WorldGate senior vice president Gerald Kunkel said.
Another major ITV player that announced a developers initiative at the Western Show was Canal Plus US Technologies, which plans to launch what was initially called the Media Highway Developers Program, a company spokesperson said.
Veteran ITV player ICTV Inc. also announced its new Broadband TV Partner Program. Like partners in most programs, those who join with ICTV can expect to receive a content developers' kit, online documentation with technical support, and marketing support.
"The infrastructure for American interactive TV is coming online," said PowerSummit keynoter Larry Marcus, the Walden VP partner widely credited with coining the term "t-commerce," or television commerce. "Today's 'flight to quality' in the Internet markets means that now is the time for TV operators to start spending more money to develop interactive TV services."