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The making of OpenCable

Wed, 10/31/2007 - 8:50pm
Mike Robuck

While the OpenCable Platform’s network elements
reach the final stages of testing and trials by cable operators,
ETV EBIF will set the table for interactive services.

The cable industry keeps implying that it’s just putting the final touches on the OpenCable Platform, but like a chef building the evening’s menu on the fly, cable seems to be underestimating the prep work involved.

At last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the cable industry trotted out some of its higher profile executives to talk about the ongoing progress of the OpenCable Applications Platform (OCAP). That scene was repeated on a smaller scale at this year’s Cable Show ’07 during the OCAP Developers Conference that was presented by the NCTA and CableLabs.

At both events, the cable industry sought to reassure consumer electronics companies, application developers, content providers, and maybe Wall Street, that it’s serious about deploying OCAP.

All along, the industry has been assembling the necessary ingredients for OCAP and it seems almost ready to start cooking. The three largest cable operators, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox, say they are closing in on wide deployment.

Figure 1 - interactive services
Figure 1: The deployment of interactive services is being driven by several market and
technology factors, including the potential for interactive advertising, digital video
recorders getting viewers used to watching TV on their own terms, and the FCC
mandated switch to digital services in 2009.
(Source: Digdia)

Meanwhile, the industry is exploring EBIF, a means of providing interactive applications on basic set-top boxes. Providing interactive advertising using EBIF has become a project that’s important enough that the industry has given it its own code name: Project Canoe.

OCAP was originally part of the broader OpenCable initiative, which CableLabs launched in 1997 to promote the deployment of interactive services over cable. OCAP consists of a stack of middleware software that resides between applications and the operating system within a consumer electronics device, such as a set-top box or OCAP-compliant TV set. This approach makes it so that any OCAP application should be able to run on any OCAP device.

Java-based OpenCable devices can have new information or applications ported to them because of their two-way capabilities, with ETV being an early forerunner of applications for legacy set-top boxes.

With OCAP, cable operators can offer a wide range of services and product offerings that will differentiate them from their competitors and hopefully endear them to advertisers and content providers. The OCAP applications will include addressable advertising, electronic program guides, caller ID on a TV, news and sports information on TV screens, VOD, digital video recorders, games, shopping and customer care.

For developers, content providers and broadcasters, OCAP holds the promise of “write once, deploy everywhere,” as opposed to writing to various proprietary platforms. Customers not only benefit from the new services and applications, but will also be able to take their OCAP-devices from one MSO’s system to another’s when they move.

OCAP becomes OpenCable Platform, trials underway
This past summer CableLabs decreed that OpenCable Platform was officially replacing the term OCAP because the former covers both hardware and software. CableLabs also gave a maintenance overhaul to OpenCable Platform 1.0.0, while version 1.0.1 was completed and includes personal basis profile 1.1. There’s currently no timetable for OpenCable Platform 1.0.2, but areas of focus include multi-screen manager, digital program insertion and metrics. CableLabs is also looking at adding DVR and basic home networking capabilities to future versions of the OpenCable Platform.

Large cable operators are, for the most part, working out the final kinks in the OCAP architecture. Comcast expects to have OCAP-enabled systems in 80 percent of its footprint by next year, using a DOCSIS set-top gateway (DSG) connection (instead of a DAVIC or Aloha protocol) for the out-of-band back channel.

Mark Hess
Hess

“Right now what we’re doing is taking the beginnings of the full OCAP software, both our parts and the (OCAP) stack, and really proving out that we can make it all work in the network,” said Mark Hess, Comcast’s senior vice president, product development, video. “We’ve made it (DSG) work in our VOD systems. We actually have a centralized architecture that we think is going to be real valuable for us at the start because we can get going in a big way with a bigger footprint. We’ve proved out all of those components with the first OCAP trials.”

Comcast, which has about 75 percent of its current set-top boxes from Motorola, has conducted OCAP trials in Denver, Philadelphia, Boston, and Union, N.J. In addition to DSG, Comcast has been focusing on an integrated guide for OCAP and production codes. Hess said other Comcast trials this year will focus on the user experience itself.

“There’s an element of TVWorks, and an element of Guideworks,” Hess said of the user experience trials. “TVWorks brings in what we call the services library that is able to provide any application, including the guide, access into the Comcast services layer. Then we integrate the TVWorks portion with the I-Guide and all of that is put onto a stack and turned into a product.”

TVWorks is jointly owned by Cox and Comcast after the two companies bought up Liberate. Both Cox and Comcast are using a subset of the OCAP Java APIs in order to reach legacy set-top boxes with interactive services. Cox calls its version On Ramp, while Comcast uses the term TV Navigator.

Hess said Comcast is using TV Navigator in the DVR that it’s developing with TiVo in an effort to have a common software platform in as many set-top boxes as possible.

“We’ll put some of our guide on to it (TV Navigator),” Hess said. “It’s interesting, in terms of our own guide product, that we’re going to do OCAP first before TV Navigator.”

Cox has previously said it expects to have five OCAP trials by the end of the year and a national footprint next year. Cox is developing applications, such as weather, sports, and news ticker applications, on its On Ramp platform first before transferring the same types of applications over to higher-end set-top boxes that are OCAP-enabled.

At the NCTA show, Zodiac Interactive bowed its PowerRamp application, which is designed for cable operators who don’t have access to the TVWorks On Ramp/TV Navigator technology, but still want to reach the deployed base of set-top boxes. PowerRamp is based on the JSR 242 specification and is based on Sun Microsystems’ CLDC-HI JVM, which is Sun’s mobile JVM (Java virtual machine).

“It’s somewhat similar to On Ramp but our JVM is a lot faster because it’s newer,” said Zodiac COO and co-founder Alex Libkind. “The difference really comes down to a lot of optimizations we’ve been able to do because we got into this market later. We’ve got a hyper-optimized JVM that we worked on with Sun and we’ve got a number of other improvements to the On Ramp specification. Our objective is to make it certified and fully compliant with Sun’s JSR 242 specification. We’re working through that right now.”

Time Warner Cable, which has 70 percent of its headends in the Scientific Atlanta environment, has done a trial in the past with Samsung’s OCAP-enabled TV, which supported Time Warner’s OCAP Digital Navigator (OCN) interactive program guide, and started deploying OCN set-top boxes earlier this year from Scientific Atlanta. The company plans to have a trial by the end of this year, followed by a deployment next year.

Patrick Donoghue
Donoghue

“Today we’re deploying OCAP boxes to our customers with what looks like the same EPG and guide that you’d get on any high-end box, but it’s all OCAP-based,” said Patrick Donoghue, Time Warner Cable’s vice president, iTV product management. “We’re also rolling out our Mystro digital navigator, which is kind of our next-generation guide, that will work on all classes of digital boxes. That will give us a common look and feel across all of our digital boxes when we’re fully deployed.

“Once you have a platform, that allows you to take all of the [knowledge] from the services and applications we’ve trialed and launched and optimize them to choose the very best ones for customers to enjoy and that we can monetize.”

OCAP applications in the works
Over the course of a decade, or even longer, interactive television (iTV) has had more starts and stops than a school bus. The development of interactive services was often hamstrung by the need to develop an application in five or six different technology environments, since there wasn’t a common standard.

“When I came to the Weather Channel 13 years ago, it was one of the first things we were working on beyond the core network programming that we did at the time,” said Weather Channel President Debora Wilson, referring to interactive services.

“In an interactive environment weather is always one of the categories that really surfaces to the top of consumers’ lists. The problem has been that there have been so many different platforms to program to and they were proprietary, so that while one cable operator was working with one, two, or even three platforms, another cable operator was working with one or two other platforms. So that caused us to have to be involved with literally a score of different platforms over the course of time.

“OCAP rationalizes all of that and it allows us as a programmer, and also the operator, to work with one platform that can be nationally deployed.”

The Weather Channel completed its own OCAP platform earlier this year. The application is in a number of locations right now, including the NCTA’s broadband home, and Brian Shield, the Weather Channel’s executive vice president and CIO, said the Weather Channel is hoping to get its consumer applications on cable operators’ OCAP platforms once the current round of trials is finished.

Zodiac Interactive’s OCAP consumer
applications include one with “LocalSearch”
that will allow customers to search locally
for a particular restaurant on their TV
screens while still watching a show.

Unlike some programmers who are still figuring out what their viewers may want to see, the Weather Channel has a leg up on its interactive applications because it has already deployed them on various platforms, including mobile and online.

The Weather Channel’s OCAP consumer applications can generate targeted and personalized weather information by zip codes, by airport, by maps, and over a given time period (see screen capture at left). The Weather Channel information is a bound application in the OCAP environment, which means it’s only sent to the set-top box when it’s tuned to that channel. Unbound OCAP applications, such as program guides, require the headend for injection of XAIT signaling.

While cable operators need to consider the merits of overlaying applications on a TV screen, which is real estate that could contain logos or other information from a broadcaster, or squeezing back the screen to make room for an L-shaped bar; the Weather Channel opted to overlay its applications over its own content.

The Weather Channel developed its OCAP consumer applications in house with the help of a starter kit from Vidiom. It worked with Vidiom on CableLabs’ enhanced TV Binary Interface Format (ETV-BIF) that the company also hopes to field trial with cable operators.

The Weather Channel has developed its own
consumer applications for the OpenCable Platform
that include weather information by city, airport,
zip code and maps. (Source: Weather Channel)

“There are some capabilities that would allow us to more efficiently leverage our existing traditional IP hosting capabilities that aren’t present in the OCAP application and those are things we’d like to see continue to evolve,” said Shield. “But I think overall as OCAP becomes more of a ubiquitous standard, content providers such as ourselves, in partnership with the MSOs, should be in the position to deliver really compelling content to our consumers that wasn’t possible before.”

While vendor companies such as Integra5 are developing products for the OCAP environment–Integra5 demonstrated how OCAP set-top box software communicates with its i5 Converged Services Platform at the CableLabs Summer Conference – the OpenCable Platform is still a half-baked soufflé at this point.

“OCAP is still a number of years away from full deployment to most U.S. homes,” said Zodiac’s Libkind. “It’s a relatively heavy standard and it requires anywhere from 32 to 64 megabytes minimum on the set-top box, which is more towards the higher end of that range.”

EBIF to whet consumers’ appetites for interactive applications
While the planets are still aligning for OCAP, interactive services (see Figure 1 on page 22) are poised for a bright future starting with the ETV EBIF standard.

EBIF applications are largely bound to the show that is being watched. ETV applications require a thin EBIF client to be downloaded into a set-top box to interpret ETV signaling and binary commands that are sent via an in-band stream. While ETV and EBIF were designed to give cable operators a national footprint for interactive content, which is the same mission statement for OCAP, their best attribute is that they work on legacy set-top boxes.

“EBIF is hugely important,” said Dalen Harrison, the CEO of Ensequence. “I think it’s going to be the biggest interactive story of the year next year. EBIF will support not only both Scientific Atlanta and Motorola boxes that are out there in the tens of millions, but it will also allow interactive VOD applications, enhanced content, enhanced advertising, and interactive advertising, which is going to be the next big thing.”

Vendors have lined up in droves to take part in a request for information from CableLabs to take part in building a single, industry-wide platform for interactive advertising that would be used by the large MSOs. The effort has been dubbed “Project Canoe.”

While there are many elements to Project Canoe, including sales tools, back office and integration, the basic engine will initially use EBIF for the triggers before transitioning over to OCAP down the road.

“Interactive advertising is going to be the next big thing,” Harrison said. “We feel we’re in a unique position to support Canoe because we’re the only ones we’re aware of that have EBIF and OCAP tools in play right now with all of the large MSOs.”

t NCTA’s show in Las Vegas, Tandberg Television rolled out what it said was the first demonstration of a live T-commerce application that was successfully ported to meet the open standards set by CableLabs for ETV EBIF.

Tandberg worked with TVWorks to come up with an open standards version of its currently deployed live interactive shopping application for the TV shopping network HSN. The demonstration used the TVWorks ETV Platform and was in an EBIF-compliant format. The application allows home shoppers to use their remote controls instead of phones or an online service to do their shopping on HSN.

“We really like it that Comcast and Time Warner Cable have taken on the job of getting the client user agent embedded into their basic set-top box software,” said Michael Adams, Tandberg’s vice president, systems architecture. “The next major release of Comcast’s guide, by TVWorks, is going to support ETV. That means every system where they upgrade to the new version of the guide will get ETV over a large footprint without any new hardware.”

Hess said Comcast will start market EBIF trials this year for its Motorola set-top boxes and then expand them in the first quarter of next year. Comcast didn’t say what applications will be in the trials, but there could be elements of telescoping ads, polling and voting.

“From an EBIF standpoint, I think you’ll see it at the start of ’08 and then by the end of the year it will be widely deployed,” Hess said. “I think the OCAP stuff will come a little later. The most important first service for OCAP is the VOD guide because whether the customer has an OCAP TV or device the product needs to look the same. I think by mid-year (2008) we will have much more capability deployed and we’ll start putting our first OCAP set-top boxes out there while getting ready for OCAP TVs as well.”

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