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Operators dodge flak in Silicon Valley

Fri, 10/31/1997 - 7:00pm
Fred Dawson
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The Open Cable set-top initiative notwithstanding, the cable industry faces an uphill battle when it comes to any effort to insulate itself from the influence of Microsoft Corp. over the software framework for next-generation media.

Industry leaders have made clear their desire to facilitate flexibility in their choice of set-top operating systems through a terminal architecture that can exploit the interoperability features of "virtual engines," such as Sun Microsystem's JavaScript, Lucent Technologies' Inferno and the Internet community's Dynamic HTML (hypertext markup language). Packaging content with such components, in theory at least, allows new media applications to run on multiple operating systems and also streamlines the use of processing power at the terminal or PC, thereby reducing the embedded hardware requirements, and therefore, the costs.

"With next-generation set-tops, I believe the operating system is going to become less and less of an issue," says Bob Van Orden, director of digital video systems for Scientific-Atlanta. "Everybody knows the story of Microsoft and IBM, and the cable industry is reluctant to do something like that again."

Tele-Communications Inc. CEO John Malone made much the same point in recent remarks to his company's shareholders. "It's critical that the industry has to pick published and open standards," said Malone, who, with MediaOne COO William Schleyer and CableLabs President Richard Green, sent the letter inviting vendor responses to the Open Cable set-top initiative in early September. Within a year, Malone added, a set-top "network computer" costing under $300 with built-in cable modem technology would be able to run a wide range of multimedia applications based on open scripting languages like Java.

Malone made it clear that the industry does not want to be drawn into the battle between Microsoft and its allies on the one hand, and the Sun/Oracle Corp./Netscape Communications camp on the other, where incompatible approaches to developing, distributing and playing back multimedia content are splitting the market base and chilling media companies' willingness to spend capital on interactive products. While, by throwing in with one side or another, the cable industry might be able to vastly broaden the market base for any given format, this approach would put the industry at the mercy of whichever side it chooses, industry officials note.

Moreover, a unanimous choosing of sides is not a real option, given the divisions already evident within the industry on the question of browsers and related software options. For example, the division poses a challenge to MSOs in efforts to unify on a common architecture for distribution of data signals through a national backbone connection, says Milo Medin, vice president for @Home Network.

"In order to be able to scale our network at a consistent level of service quality, we have to set limits on our software environment," Medin says, noting that the company is making use of back-office and other applications linked to Netscape's browser. "This doesn't mean we're shutting anybody out, but it does mean we can't meet our goals and accommodate 20 different software approaches to a given task."

Clearly, the cable industry will benefit if it can use its distributed computing architecture, buttressed with multi-service capable next-generation servers and high-speed links, to deliver data streams, including back-office connections, to set-tops as well as PCs without having to lock into a universal operating system. But it remains to be seen whether ensuring this level of interoperability will have the intended impact on content developers.

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Sun and its allies, which now include Lucent in a pact ensuring compatibility between Inferno- and Java-enabled devices, have focused most of their attention on the business market, leaving it to Microsoft and its partners to develop applications, such as video streaming and multiplayer on-line gaming, for the mass consumer market.

While suppliers of these capabilities maintain some degree of compatibility under the Microsoft umbrella, they also promote proprietary distinctions in functionality that represent the key attractions in their products over the more interoperable versions.

"The reason Microsoft succeeded in winning wide support for ASF (active streaming format), is there was no alternative out there," says Pete Zaballos, marketing vice president at video streaming supplier Vivo Software Co., in reference to the sweeping realignment in Internet video triggered by Microsoft in late August. "The people at Netscape, Oracle and Sun have been asleep at the switch when it comes to support for video on the Web."

While Microsoft is employing a variety of means, including its own virtual engine and Dynamic HTML, as well as ASF and cross-licensing of various proprietary systems, to broaden interoperability, the fact remains that incompatibilities abound among the suppliers of content development tools, meaning, among other things, that users must download specific client plug-in software to access much of the more appealing content. As a result, many of the applications most appealing to cable are those least capable of meeting the universal distribution goals underlying the Open Cable initiative.

Microsoft's latest actions, including acquisition of the video streaming software company VXtreme Inc. and release of version 2.0 of its NetShow content development software, are aimed at promoting growth of a "broad streaming media industry," says Paul Maritz, group vice president for platforms and applications at Microsoft. By incorporating a uniform approach to streaming in NetShow and making NetShow part of its Explorer 4.0 browser software, Microsoft hopes to seed a vast user base with client software that provides access to most video content, he adds.

"We're trying to build out product with the strongest range of scalability, all linked to Internet standards," Maritz says. "We're developing NetShow not only as a standalone Internet distribution mechanism, but also as a means of integrating that distribution with back-office production."

Further strengthening its hand, Microsoft has licensed the source codes of the leading supplier of streaming software, RealNetworks Inc., formerly known as Progressive Networks Inc., as well as other codes so that developers working with NetShow can create content that will work with those suppliers' client software. Some of these plug-in components are also distributed within NetShow's player as part of the Internet Explorer browser.

"We believe the NetShow player will be the universal player for fostering growth in streaming multimedia," says Zenas Hutcheson, CEO of Vivo, which is also part of the player agreement. "It will greatly simplify users' ability to access content, and we believe it will accelerate corporate adoption of streaming media applications."

Microsoft alliance

Microsoft's success at bringing together so many disparate parties under the NetShow umbrella has drawn Justice Department scrutiny, but parties to the deals strongly defend Microsoft as having acted in the industry's best interests and in the best interests of fostering competition. Even VDOnet Corp., which lost a shot at being the lead streaming supplier in the NetShow hierarchy when Microsoft acquired its competitor VXtreme, expresses strong support for the new alignment, in which it functions as a software systems integrator on the broadband front within the Microsoft alliance.

"We've seen this set of moves coming for a long time and are well prepared to operate in this new environment," says Steve Chambers, vice president of marketing at VDO, in which Microsoft holds a minority stake, believed to be about five percent.

"VDOnet has been focusing on one specific target as potential customers — namely, the cable companies," adds Asaf Mohr, chairman of VDO. In that connection, he notes, the company is working closely with Microsoft and other alliance members in shaping a new standard, MPEG-4, for marrying IP data with high-end video.

MPEG-4, incorporating MPEG-2 algorithms while adding extensions that interface with other compression techniques used in Internet applications, has been quietly edging forward, largely outside the purview of the cable industry. But, with the growing cluster of technology companies allying with Microsoft, the pieces have suddenly begun to come together to create a solution that could be ready for market implementation by mid '98, Chambers says.

A number of cable programmers have been experimenting with the pre-release version of NetShow, says Mike Ahern, lead product manager for NetShow. "We're shipping a version of NetShow that supports full frame video service with true high-speed access level compression," he says. "I think people who have been using NetShow are very excited about the possibilities, and some will be ready to move to applications fairly soon, but they're a little bit gun-shy about publicity at this point."

Along with memories of premature excitement over interactive television, these content developers are also wary of getting ahead of cable modem deployments, which have gone slower than some expected, Ahern notes. "Cable companies have shown much more interest in content development for high-speed data access lately, so I think the industry is getting its ducks in a row," he adds.

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Cable data providers are enthusiastic about the multicasting capabilities their systems will support.

VDO and Microsoft will begin working together in marketing their solutions to the high-speed data community, Ahern notes. "They're building applications on NetShow, but we're the ones selling NetShow, so it's a joint sale to the customer," he adds.

While all these developments further strengthen Microsoft's hand on the content side, they don't necessarily mean developers and their partners in cable can finally assume that the compatibilities are in place to protect against Balkanization of the marketplace for their products. "Agreement on the file format is just a piece of what needs to be done, because you still have to deal with the incompatibilities among codecs (encoder/decoders) and the (streaming transport) protocol," says Phillip Rosedale, general manager of the applications group at RealNetworks.

While RealNetworks licensed its source code to Microsoft to allow developers using NetShow to create content that works with RN's RealAudio and RealVideo player software at the user end, users must still download the player software to access the content, Rosedale notes. And this is the case with many other suppliers' client software in instances where the players haven't been licensed to be included automatically in the download of a particular browser.

New streaming protocol

Despite the inclusion of a growing cluster of streaming players in the Microsoft and Netscape browsers, the real answer to achieving broad interoperability is agreement on a new streaming protocol that embraces the advanced capabilities in these new streaming systems with a uniform set of APIs (applications program interfaces), Rosedale says. Taking issue with Microsoft executives who contend the steam has gone out of efforts to define what is known as "Real Time Streaming Protocol," Rosedale says the process, under the auspices of the Internet Engineering Task Force, is making significant headway.

"We have a person devoted full time to RTSP, which, for a relatively small company, is not an inconsiderable commitment," he says. "We wouldn't do it if it wasn't paying off."

But, even with agreement on a streaming transport protocol, the market has to deal with another layer of incompatibilities represented by a proliferation of proprietary codecs. In RN's case, for example, while the licensing deal with Microsoft ensures some degree of compatibility between NetShow-developed content and RN codecs at the client end, the level of functionality in the segment covered by the license excludes multicasting applications and certain aspects of the functionality contained in Release 5.0 of the company's streaming system, Rosedale notes.

That functionality, including means to set up pay-per-view, subscription or time-limited access as well as multicasting and other capabilities, is proving to be a strong draw within the cable high-speed data community, Rosedale says. @Home Network, for example, which is partnered with MSOs representing over a third of the North American subscriber base, has begun testing broadband content applications based on RN's software in combination with new multicasting capabilities built into @Home's national backbone network.

Meanwhile, in moves closer to the Microsoft camp, MediaOne is moving forward with development of high-end multimedia content that makes use of technology supplied by VDOnet and others that is incompatible with the RN software. And Time Warner's Road Runner Group, which recently adopted Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 as its default browser, is preparing to exploit the multi-player compatibilities of the browser to begin distributing streamed media.

"In the future, we're going to be focusing much more heavily on streaming content than we have up to now," says Howard Pfeffer, vice president of software technology for Road Runner. "IE 4 offers a great platform for doing that."

Cable data providers are especially enthusiastic about the multicasting capabilities their systems will support, Pfeffer notes. "The connectionless nature (meaning always on) of our technology is ideally suited for multicasting, which is another big advantage of IE 4, which supports multicast elements embedded in Web pages," he adds.

Multicasting is a newly standardized means of distributing content mapped to the packetized format of the Internet Protocol that allows a single data feed from a server port to go out to multiple users at the same time. This approach greatly reduces congestion at the server and makes it easier to manage the flow of bandwidth-consuming video over the network, where delivering video to many users contending for dedicated bandwidth at the same time can result in an overall slowing of access speeds for everyone within a given serving area.

RN, not content to wait for @Home's market base to grow, is working with MCI to develop a streamlined backbone for supporting multicasting of content pegged to its software platform. "Our strategic goal is to accelerate the phenomenon of the Internet being used as a mass media outlet," says Rob Glaser, RN chairman and CEO.

The new network supports multicasting of audio and video content from RN's master server in Seattle to nine MCI data centers around the country via the long distance carrier's piece of the Internet backbone. Proprietary "splitter" software from RN segments data for delivery in a dedicated, unicast mode from the data centers through the regional connections to ISPs (Internet service providers) and on to end users.

"We see this as a first step toward taking the evolution of the Internet to the next level," says John Scarborough, director of product marketing in MCI's Internet group. "We've come up with a formula for using distributed multicasting to push caching of multimedia content out to the edge of the backbone network."

That formula involves undisclosed investment sums on the part of both companies to upgrade routers to support IP multicasting over MCI's Internet backbone, as well as to install the server and software components at various network points. Initial users include ABCNews.Com, for delivery of live news feeds and on-demand reports; ESPN's SportsZone for audio broadcasting of National Basketball Association games and other applications; Atlantic Records for distribution of live concerts; and Home and Garden Television for distribution of some of its cable programming to reach non-affiliated markets. Another early customer is JamTV, a multimedia music Web site, that plans to broadcast live concerts.

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Open Cable is really as much about broadening the software tool base in media content

In each instance, these customers download, via satellite or direct landline feeds, the audio and video broadcast components of their Web sites to RN's facilities. When a user whose PC is loaded with RealVideo or Audio player software clicks onto a video connection while visiting one of the participating Web sites, he or she is instantly connected to the data stream flowing from the RN site via the new backbone network.

Given its efforts to stay a step ahead of the Microsoft camp, one might expect RN to be making use of Java as a means of expanding the reach of its technology. But RN, like most other streaming suppliers, is not packaging Java at this point.

"Doing everything in Java is not necessarily the way to go from the standpoint of the user's experience," Rosedale says. RN "is aware of everything they're doing" and could move to a version of its software using the new Java Media Streaming Format now under development, Rosedale notes, but it remains to be seen whether drawbacks inherent to this particular virtual machine can be overcome.

JMSF will make a difference if it supports real-time decoding, Rosedale says, adding, "There are a lot of complicated details to be worked out for doing something like that."

VDOnet's Mohr also downplays the likelihood that Java will come into play anytime soon in connection with his firm's technology, notwithstanding the benefits it would offer by expanding the operating systems base for VDO-enabled content. "Java is fine in applications that aren't computational-intensive, but video streaming requires so much processing that, if you add an interface like Java on top of it, you end up consuming 20 MHz or more of CPU power unnecessarily," Mohr says.

Clearly, the Sun alliance is moving to catch up on the consumer side, with Oracle pushing consumer applications on the appliance track, and Sun now setting up the Sun Consumer Technologies Group in conjunction with its recent acquisition of Diba Inc., a company that certifies compliance of service providers with the Java-based Network Computer platform. For its part, Netscape has announced it will deliver a "pure Java" version of its Navigator client software next year as part of its new commitment to deliver more than 100 million copies of Navigator 4.0 to home users.

"This announcement, combined with the inclusion of our HTML component in the Java Development Kit, represents a tremendous step toward our goal of making Netscape client technology ubiquitous in both homes and businesses," says James Barksdale, Netscape president and CEO. This represents a strong reversal of the position taken a year ago, when Netscape made a point of downplaying the significance of the consumer market to its fortunes.

Cable executives hope they'll find willing listeners in the Sun/Netscape camp as they seek to persuade these companies and their allies that cable represents a tremendous opportunity to gain momentum on the consumer side. Open Cable, for all the concentration on set-top hardware, is really as much about broadening the software tool base in media content, notes one industry official, asking not to be named.

"We're already well down the road in defining the hardware components for next-generation boxes," the executive says. "But we've got to persuade Silicon Valley to support a more robust means of achieving compatibility across various operating platforms than we're seeing today in Java or other formats."

Whether cable's offer of a majority of U.S. households as a potential market for broadband multimedia is sufficient to bring the warring Silicon Valley factions together remains to be seen. But in the meantime, it's clear that decisions will have to be made that inevitably force content suppliers and cable operators to choose content development platforms that fall far short of the goal of universal reach.

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