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Devil's in the Details

Fri, 08/31/2001 - 8:00pm
Roger Brown, Editorial Director, Broadband

Some cable operators
are now re-evaluating the need for OCAP

Roger Brown
Editorial Director, Broadband

The cable television industry's vision of a time when consumers can purchase digital set-top boxes at local retail electronics outlets, hook them up at home and enjoy interactive services is as far off in the distance today as it was five years ago–and it isn't going to get any closer anytime soon.

OpenCable, the CableLabs-led initiative aimed at helping operators deploy interactive services and a standardized hardware platform, is currently stuck in neutral, as cable operators struggle to rebuild consensus and work with software vendors on terms that are mutually agreeable.

The OpenCable project was initiated back in 1997 when the vision of interactive television included expensive, fully featured set-tops such as the DCT-5000 acting as the gateway device. Since then, of course, the industry has deployed millions of less complex, 2000-class, digital boxes.

OpenCable consists of a hardware specification so that interoperable set-top boxes can be built and sold at retail; and a software specification, called the OpenCable Applications Platform (OCAP), designed to create a common platform for interactive services and solve the problem of proprietary operating system software that exists today.

The hardware spec has already been completed, but OCAP is both more complex and an infinitely more difficult puzzle to solve. A year ago, CableLabs officials predicted that the specification would be completed and ready for implementation by year-end 2000. In reality, the draft specification wasn't released for comment until March of this year, and issues over intellectual property rights and licenses threaten to push any meaningful agreement into next year.

OCAP consists of two main components: an "execution engine," or programming environment; and a "presentation engine," similar to a Web browser, which would provide support for HTML and ECMAScript.

Over this summer, OCAP has come unraveled. Software vendors stopped attending OCAP meetings and are balking over intellectual property rights and licensing issues. Some cable operators are now re-evaluating the need for OCAP and how it would be deployed. Technology executives are questioning whether there's even a need to deploy the presentation engine–while others remain firmly committed to rolling out both components.

"The matter of whether it (OCAP) needs a presentation engine such as FlashMacromedia, or HTML, or MHP, and for that matter, all that other junk, is a decision that the cable operator should be making," one MSO engineer told me privately. He further suggests that OCAP should consist of a software "core" upon which several future modules could be attached.

Clearly, software vendors and CableLabs' members are all over the map on the subject. That does not bode well for imminent industrywide deployment–and that's unfortunate. It's yet another indicator of how difficult it is to sort out the pesky details of interoperability.

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