Microsoft Corp. is making it clear that the global
community of Windows software developers is a key to gaining a dominant role in
digital-cable set-top boxes.
While Microsoft's annual conference last week to court
developers for its Windows CE (WinCE) operating system generated little new set-top buzz,
the software giant unveiled tools to help developers create software and hardware running
on WinCE and to translate that work to a broader variety of devices.
One such tool, the "Common Executable Format,"
enables a developer to write applications that work on more than one type of
microprocessor, instead of having to recompile the programs for each of the different
processors used by WinCE-device vendors.
Some participants at the Denver gathering said this type of
tool could give WinCE a leg up on rival set-top operating systems by leveraging the work
and experience that the operating system's huge global developer community generated from
other Windows platforms.
"The C++ developers and Visual Basic community
developers can take a tool or application and quickly tailor that to a WinCE
environment," said Greville Commins, U.S. operations director for the advanced RISC
(reduced-instruction-set computer) micros division of chip-maker STMicroelectronics Group.
"That's probably one of the biggest single factors people will see," he added.
"Apart from that, WinCE itself is just another
operating system," said Commins, whose company was demonstrating its own digital
set-top platform running on WinCE. "It's really the total solution that's important
ATI Technologies Inc., which displayed its own set-top
reference design, is doing most of its own set-top development work on WinCE partly
because of its lengthy relationship with Microsoft on the PC side of the business,
according to product manager Shawn Saleem.
"There's a lot of interest [by developers] now because
Microsoft is starting to show more support," Saleem said. "But it's early in the
digital set-top evolution. People are still deciding what they want to do with it."
Among other set-top-oriented solutions at the show, C-Cube
Microsystems Inc. announced that its consumer MPEG-2 encoder/decoder would support WinCE,
enabling functions such as digital recording and "time-shifting" of live
broadcasts by WinCE set-tops.
But last week's conference seemed to reiterate that the
current impetus for driving broader acceptance and usage of WinCE is coming from
applications that are already in the field.
Demonstrations and hands-on displays were dominated by
portable and mobile devices, such as hand-held and palm-sized computers and the
"AutoPC" device for cars, as well as enterprise-oriented equipment such as
electronic gasoline pumps and cash registers.
The company also touted the growth of the WinCE platform by
pointing to the success of such devices as Sega Enterprises Ltd.'s new
"Dreamcast" video game, which has sold 1 million units in Japan, and to the
shipment of 100,000 WinCE-development kits. Looming in the background, of course, is
AT&T Corp.'s commitment to deploy up to 10 million WinCE cable set-tops.
At the confab's opening keynote session, Microsoft
executives briefly demonstrated a General Instrument Corp. "DCT-5000" set-top
running the WinCE operating system.
Shown were applications that included video programming, an
electronic program guide, Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser and Webcasting that looked
strikingly similar to the interface and functionality of Microsoft's existing WebTV
Networks platform, which is also ported to the DCT-5000.
WebTV director of platform marketing Alan Yates said the
demonstration was not of commercially available software, but of a prototype to show that
WinCE would run on the DCT-5000 in a real-life setting, accessing real programming and Web
At this week's National Show, Microsoft was expected to
unveil commercial WinCE software releases for set-tops, providing further details about
the client and server strategy that it already has announced for cable.
"They're Microsoft commercial releases, coming from
WebTV technology in part, coming from Windows CE in part," Yates said. "There's
clearly WebTV client technology applied to the software and WebTV server technology that's
the foundation of what we're delivering to cable."
Earlier this month, Microsoft unveiled the latest
generation of narrowband-connected WebTV boxes -- the first to incorporate bits of the
WinCE operating system.
The company followed that up with a $30 million investment
in Wink Communications Inc. and an agreement between the two firms to promote interactive
content and commerce tools based on Advanced Television Enhancement Forum specifications,
which are rooted in standard HyperText Markup Language and Internet protocol.
"Microsoft very clearly understands that while the
WebTV service as it stands is somewhat compelling, there's an opportunity to work with
AT&T and others to bring additional functionality and enhanced programming to TV
sets," IDC Research senior analyst Kevin Hause said.
"I would not doubt that Microsoft's recent
announcement with Wink indicates that it's looking at other things besides true Internet
access on the TV," Hause added.