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Interactive Harmony?

Thu, 03/31/2005 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor


OCAP and the applications that will support it are still in synch-up mode

Penn & Teller. Starsky & Hutch. Batman & Robin. Like any dynamic duo, one member is not considered whole without the other. OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform) middleware isn't going to make you laugh (much), solve crimes, or put The Joker behind bars at Arkham Asylum, but it will need to be coupled with a strong set of applications in order to flourish.

"Apps will drive the success of OCAP, not the platform," says Scott Newnam, president and CEO of iTV vet GoldPocket Interactive. "In general, I believe OCAP will be adopted and successful. But it will take time. I'm not being fooled into thinking that this will be an overnight thing," he adds.

Newnam views the potential growth of OCAP in much the same way as the personal computer. "Once you could do a lot of applications, everyone wanted PCs," he says.

GoldPocket...
GoldPocket has OCAP in the plans, but
more recent deals (like this one w/CBS)
will key on legacy platforms.
Zodiak Gaming...
Zodiac Gaming, the maker of this
BlackJack app, could have up to 50
OCAP-compliant games ready to
go in the next 12 months.
OpenTV plans...
OpenTV plans to port several titles
from its popular PlayJam portfolio
to the OCAP platform.
When it comes to OCAP and OCAP applications, "we are seeing a chicken-and-egg syndrome," acknowledges Jeff Bonin, senior product manager at Vidiom Systems Corp., one of a small group of OCAP stack developers. "A number of content providers and set-top manufacturers are looking at [OCAP] development tools to kick the tires at this point. They know OCAP is coming, but they're not ready to do all-out development."

But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of work going on. "We've seen a lot of activity [during] the last two months. We're turning down work right now because they want to get everything done before The National Show," notes Michael Malcy, vice president of business development and marketing at Vidiom, a company that serves as the software brains behind the Comcast-Time Warner Cable OCAP Development LLC joint venture.

For applications developers, the trick will be to put resources toward the emerging platform—but not too many resources.

"For iTV companies, OCAP has to be an important part of the strategy. OCAP is an important initiative that the [cable] industry is pursuing. Anyone would be crazy to be willingly incompatible," says Gary Lauder, the managing director for Lauder Partners LLC, an investment firm with stakes in iTV-related companies such as Integra5, AgileTV and ICTV Inc.

"The big challenge is timing," Lauder says, adding that it's important for iTV app developers to stay on top of OCAP developments, "but not to dedicate every resource to it."

That means they should give special attention to millions of installed cable set-tops that don't have the processing power to accommodate a full OCAP stack.

Developers offer a mixed bag

Most major MSOs have big plans for OCAP, but how quickly and how widely they will roll it out varies by operator. Time Warner Cable, for example, plans to put OCAP in at least three systems this year and across the board in 2006. Cox Communications, on the other hand, is starting this year with OnRamp, a stepping-stone platform for legacy boxes that works toward the full OCAP stack.

Mark Hess, Comcast Cable's senior vice president of digital television, stresses that the OCAP stack is just one piece of a larger puzzle. An operator must also consider the overall server structure and the two-way messaging connection. "There's a lot more to it than a bit of code in the set-top," he notes.

"There's more than putting the stack on the box and porting Java to it," adds Steve Reynolds, the chief technology officer of OpenTV's North American cable division. "There's management of content at the server side, figuring out how to allocate bandwidth as you move into program-synchronous [applications]. It gets pretty complicated pretty fast. Those systems have to be in place before an application developer can go nuts."

But until developers have more solid direction from cable operators as to when they'll pull the trigger, many application developers lack a defined roadmap for OCAP.

"There is great confusion whether OnRamp is going first and how far away OCAP is. All we want is something we can work to," says John Bryan, director of operations of emuse Americas, a company that helps developers write to various set-top middleware platforms.

One of the first places to look is the interactive program guide (IPG).

"IPGs are probably the first likely place where you're going to see OCAP applications," says Tony Wasilewski, chief scientist, software systems for Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s subscriber networks division. "We have a project open for an OCAP navigator."

Sprint Demo
Sprint has demo’d this OCAP-based
messaging app running on a
Scientific-Atlanta set-top.
For Comcast, the porting of applications that already exist—especially those that hook into the IPG—is a high priority when it comes to the operator's OCAP plans. That's primarily because key applications like VOD and the user interface are tied to it.

"That is pretty much job one," Hess says. "Without that, you don't really go anywhere."

He adds that Comcast is also putting more resources toward a Java-based version of "iGuide" that can run on an OCAP stack. The iGuide presently is Comcast's most widely deployed IPG. Comcast has since assumed more control of its IPG future via its GuideWorks co-venture with Gemstar. Time Warner Cable is in a similar spot with its in-house MystroTV division, which is tasked with creating navigators and applications to run on the operator's OCAP and pre-OCAP platforms.

Pioneer Electron-ics, maker of the Passport IPG, "is definitely focused on the OCAP platform," says Haig Krakirian, Pioneer's vice president of software engineering. "Our goal is to rewrite the Passport suite of applications on the OCAP platform." In addition to the IPG, Pioneer is also looking to port more experimental applications such as caller ID and some parlor games.

But porting apps to OCAP "is a huge task," he says, noting that the biggest technical hurdle has been getting the OCAP stack and hardware vendors to reach consensus on features and functions. He adds that the situation is being eased somewhat thanks to the emergence of OCAP stack vendors such as Vidiom and Osmosys. A division of Pioneer is also developing an OCAP stack for digital televisions even as a two-way Plug & Play deal remains in flux.

"We can't just sit back and wait for those deals before developing applications," Krakirian says.

Looking well beyond the IPG, OpenTV hopes to port games from its PlayJam portfolio to OCAP. PlayJam, deployed by nine different operators worldwide so far, has a library of roughly 300 titles.

Reynolds suggests that porting games is not as difficult as it might be for other applications. That's because most are coded with an underlying gameplay engine for things such as user input and how elements move on the screen.

"The bigger part of the work is redesigning the interface to make the graphics look better," Reynolds says.

OpenTV also supports "Ocode," a client/player based on Java that enables the company's applications to run on an OCAP-compliant set-top box. The player can be resident on the box or loaded alongside the application.

"It's an option for programmers and operators to tap into an existing base of applications and make them available immediately for their OCAP deployments," Reynolds explains.

Vidiom, meanwhile, makes an application development tool called Vision Workbench, which simulates an OCAP set-top box on the PC. "That allows the application developer to develop the majority of the application without connecting to the set-top or the headend. It helps to jumpstart the development process," Bonin explains.

Emuse, which has built iTV apps primarily on the BskyB platform in the U.K., is taking its act to the United States in the hopes of catching the cable and DBS iTV wave. It markets a tool that enables developers to create OCAP apps without the additional coding skills. Among its current projects is taking existing OpenTV apps and making OCAP versions of them, Bryan explains.

While some app developers are stepping more cautiously into the OCAP arena, Zodiac Gaming is plowing ahead on all cylinders.

Zodiac, which has deployments with Cablevision Systems Corp. and has ported some higher-end titles for the S-A PowerTV set-top operating system, runs a division focused squarely on OCAP.

"We started to look where the cable industry was headed, and our feeling was that OCAP, and I include OnRamp in that mix, is the future of where cable is going," says Alexander Libkind, Zodiac's president and CEO. "Over the next six to 18 months we think this will be a very hot area...and we want to be a player in this space."

Zodiac has about 100 games available on the PowerTV platform, "but I expect to have upwards of 25 to 50 games in OCAP in the next 12 months," Libkind says.

The business of OCAP

In addition to timing, some believe there's still a lack of clear direction on the business end of OCAP. A game publisher knows the cut it will receive for making a title for the Xbox or Playstation2, as do companies that create apps for cell phones. The situation for OCAP is a bit murkier, experts say.

"The single biggest open question is: What will the business model be for an application developer?," Lauder says. "Cable operators have yet to answer that question."

Until that gets figured out, "there might not be much in the way of third-party development," he warns. "For that [business segment] to really blossom, there need to be fewer risks on the part of the developer."

 

ETV and the road to OCAP

Before OCAP is widely supported, application developers will be spending most of their time and effort on legacy cable boxes that do not have the horsepower to support the full OCAP stack.

While MSOs like Cox are championing OnRamp to OCAP, the cable industry (read: CableLabs) has been quietly working on a special project for enhanced television. ETV enables interactive content and apps to synch up to the actual broadcast.

But why is ETV so important? It fits into the traditional TV paradigm, for one thing.

"There's no question that ETV usage blows away anything you see in terms of portals and virtual channels," says Newnam of GoldPocket. He estimates that almost all (98 percent) of the people watching television are watching linear video.

Although the details behind cable's ETV initiative remained sketchy by press time and many elements still require approval, the project will focus on "bound" apps—those specific to the show being broadcast. Plus, as a subset of OCAP, it will work on deployed boxes, thereby giving cable its own version of the "Red Button" that BSkyB has made so popular in the U.K., and corporate cousin DirecTV hopes to exploit soon in the U.S.

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