If News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch makes good on his pledge to create an even more competitive DirecTV Inc., chances are that will be good news for Vidiom Systems Corp.
During last month's Western Show, Vidiom's pedestal at the CableNet booth received a fair amount of attention from operators, and it was easy to see why. The company's Vision Workbench toolkit is an OpenCable 1.0 reference implementation, which would allow cable operators to match and even surpass the interactivity Murdoch has planned for direct-broadcast satellite provider DirecTV.
Vidiom demonstrated a number of applications written for the OpenCable Applications Platform (OCAP) on a Scientific-Atlanta Inc. 3250 HD set-top box, including a Time Warner Cable digital navigator; OCAP-based parlor games such as Blackjack, Trivia and Reversi; impulse pay-per-view and video-on-demand ordering; a VOD portal from Starz!; and an instant-weather application from The Weather Channel.
It was impressive enough that several CEOs of MSOs — including Comcast Corp.'s Brian Roberts — mentioned Vidiom by name during the Western Show's opening session as a means for cable to compete against satellite.
Vidiom already has gained some traction among MSOs, landing a deal with create OCAP applications for Time Warner Cable.
"Time Warner Cable believes in OCAP and the benefits that it will bring to our subscribers and the cable industry," said the MSO's senior vice president of advanced engineering and subscriber technology, Mike Hayashi. "Having an OCAP implementation will expedite the adoption of this exciting technology for set-top box manufacturers and consumer electronic companies."
Although Vidiom appears to have come out of nowhere to land a key role in OCAP development, the company and many of its engineers have been active with Cable Television Laboratories Inc. and MSO ITV efforts for years.
Vidiom was formed seven years ago and is based in Broomfield, Colo., a short drive from CableLabs headquarters. CEO Timothy Wahlers is a software engineer who worked at Philips Consumer Electronics Co. and its CD-Interactive division in the late 1980s.
Philips chose Microware Systems Corp. for its operating system for the CD-I technology, and Wahlers moved to Des Moines, Iowa — Microware's home — to further develop it.
Wahlers ran a company called OptImage, which created authoring tools for Moving Picture Experts Group encoding systems, and developed the CD-I tools for Philips.
But Philips retrenched in the mid-1990s — and Wahlers, sensing an opportunity for authoring tools in cable, moved to Denver.
He started working on software that would become the foundation for OpenTV Corp., and started meeting cable operators, including then Tele-Communications Inc. engineering chief Tom Elliot.
That led to meetings with CableLabs officials Laurie Schwartz and Don Dulchinos, and Wahlers soon had a hand in writing OpenCable white papers, circa 1998, which became the foundation for CableLabs' first specifications for OCAP.
"I helped with the proposed initial OCAP standards, then gradually shifted back full time to Vidiom," Wahlers said.
Vidiom's goal is to provide MSOs with an OCAP authoring toolkit that operators can use to develop applications, with content providers, that can ride on advanced set-tops now being deployed.
The current OCAP 1.0 reference design would sit inside advanced set-tops, and allow for the display of interactive applications, whether they are advanced guides, advanced VOD ordering, games or interactive content from programmers.
"Certification and testing are the keys to success," Wahlers said. "The specification is now there. People can build to it."
Vidiom's implementation would sit inside a software stack in the set-top. The bottom core is the hardware in the set-top itself.
Next comes the operating system: PowerTV for S-A and VxWorks for Motorola Inc. set-tops.
On the next layer sits the OCAP authoring toolsets (Vidiom's domain), along side the Java Virtual Machine.
On top of that rides the MSO's application suite or third-party applications.
Wahlers said Vidiom has seen a rapid increase in activity among programmers. "In the last 90 days, we've seen a lot of activity from content types," he said, as MSOs talk to programmers about the DirecTV threat.
"OCAP provides the ability to manage a box by service aggregator," Wahlers said.
But that leads to a lot of the questions MSOs are now grappling with.
"Will the MSOs pay for OCAP and give it to the set-top manufacturer, or do all the OCAP-type development inhouse and save money but increase the headaches?" he asked. "Is the guide part of the operating system or just an application in an OCAP suite? Does TV have its own embedded guide or should the MSO guide overrule it?"
One benefit of OCAP, Wahlers said, is that it gives MSOs options to approach such issues as the guide.
Time Warner Cable, for instance, recently signed a deal with Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., which gave the MSO flexibility to take parts of TV Guide applications and integrate them with other guide-type applications.
As MSOs launch digital video recorders, HDTV and more VOD content, the guide becomes both more critical and more complicated.
Although Vidiom's authoring tools could be described as middleware, you won't hear the "M" word much from the Vidiom crowd. "Middleware has been proprietary," Wahlers said. "You need a common way [to do interactive applications] and that's the OCAP standard."
IT ISN'T ITV
Vidiom executives also are careful to use terms like "OCAP" more than ITV. Early iterations of ITV were too expensive and too complicated to work. Those applications required a set-top box with much more memory and processing power than the 2000 series units prominent today.
And although Vidiom Systems' OCAP application requires a higher-level set-top, that grade of box is being deployed in volume through MSOs' HDTV and DVR efforts. There are more than 1 million such set-tops deployed today.
With that growing base, Wahlers believes the time is right for Vidiom.
"MSOs are very interested in third party applications," he said. And many programmers have already delved into interactivity through TV-PC cross platform applications. Many of those applications could be ported over to OCAP, said Wahlers, but it would take some reprogramming.
"The content people don't really care," he said. "They just want a solution."
It's that "definition" of a software standard to write to that Vidiom hopes to provide to cable.