A program guide used to be a fairly straightforward tool. You scrolled through a somewhat lengthy, albeit simplistic, list of program offerings, saw what you liked, punched the remote and assumed the couch potato position.

Pioneer Passport IPG
Pioneer’s Passport IPG
Today, the guide is a virtual window to a 100-plus channel universe that's growing increasingly more complicated. Now, on top of numerous pay-per-view (PPV) offerings, service providers are loading their systems with video-on-demand (VOD) libraries featuring a whole new list of offerings for consumers to work their way through.

The end-user, however, is caught in an interactive revolving door. To make an informed choice, consumers need more information. But, more information means the guides may need to get more complicated. More complication means more potential frustration for the consumer.

A complicated matter

Haig Krakirian, vice president of software engineering for Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc., says that anyone's ability to integrate EPG/IPGs together with iTV applications has some physical limits that are hard to overcome.

Haig Krakirian
"It all starts," says Krakirian, "with the digital set-tops that are deployed in the field and what capabilities they have and how they can accommodate iTV applications alongside IPGs. Of course, cable operators kept asking for more and more features in the IPG to provide more and more flexibility to subscribers so that they could set timers, parental control, etc."

That, by itself, he says, is a fairly manageable situation. But, with PPV, VOD, and subscription VOD entering the interactive picture, things are getting a whole lot more complicated. With most operators concentrating their iTV efforts on the installed base of thin-client set-top boxes, a bad situation gets worse, he says.

"There's not enough juice in those set-top boxes to do any enticing iTV applications," he notes. "The current generation of set-top boxes either have run out of memory, don't have enough processing power, or they don't have enough infrastructure in place to launch those applications."

How much is too much?

Beyond the technical challenges of loading thin-client boxes with as many interactive applications as possible, looms the question of a guide's look and feel. For revenue-conscious operators, that means using the guide not only as an informational service, but as a revenue generator, says Hal Krisbergh, chairman of the board at TVGateway, WorldGate's IPG consortium.

Hal Krisbergh
"The interesting trade-off on advertising is that it's a revenue generator," says Krisbergh, "but it's also a limitation because it's fighting for shelf space with the other programming information you give a customer.

"So, the subscriber tries to get some guide information and half the page is advertising. By definition, the amount of information the person is going to get is that much more limited. It's also distracting. Research has shown that it's an issue with consumers."

That issue, says Krisbergh, can cause a backlash. The question that arises is just how much advertising is too much? "Just because there's some backlash doesn't mean you have to eliminate all advertising," claims Krisbergh. "Not liking advertising is like motherhood and apple pie. It's a fact of life, really.

WorldGate: TVGateway
WorldGate’s TVGateway
"The tradeoff for the operator is how critical is that advertising in terms of revenue versus the service and/or the pain level it creates in the consumer or subscriber. It's something that needs to be explored and understood."

The lay of the land

It's no secret that TV Guide Interactive, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., is the Big Kahuna in the EPG/IPG space. As Aki Kishore, an analyst for media and entertainment strategies at The Yankee Group puts it, it's "in an extremely dominant position at this point."

But that doesn't necessarily mean it's an unassailable position.

Predictive Network's SmartPicks
Predictive Networks’ SmartPicks
Gemstar-TV Guide has become famous for its court battles to defend its patents, says Kishore, making it "a point to make sure nobody steps on their turf." But, after a host of settlements in past cases, Gemstar is now facing its first decision on a patent infringement case before the International Trade Commission.

The case, says Kishore, "deals specifically with the import of certain components for the IPG." The accused in this particular case include Scientific-Atlanta, Echostar and Pioneer. The verdict in this international case, which should be delivered in June, could have a far-ranging impact domestically, says Kishore. That's because it will help determine the scope and depth of Gemstar's patent portfolio.

The initial impact of an adverse ruling on Gemstar will be mitigated by the company's long-term contracts with major service providers. But, Kishore says, "from that point on, they start to lose market share."

A recent twist to the legal saga came when it was revealed that Gemstar had reported $107.6 million in revenue over the past 29 months from Scientific-Atlanta, even though the two are battling it out in court and Gemstar no longer collects any money from the set-top vendor. While Gemstar CEO Henry Yuen defended the practice, claiming "the likelihood of non-collection to be minimal," the company's stock continued its precipitous decline that started March 19 when it was announced the ITC decision had been delayed until June.

Despite the pending court decision, Gemstar continues to expand its interactive presence. Last month, the company joined forces with WorldGate and Concurrent Computer Corp. to develop an iTV application that requires no middleware.

Gerard Kunkel, president at TVGateway, says the cooperative effort is looking to counteract the move to "create a PC on top of the TV." He says the collaborative package, which uses a dynamic memory-sharing scheme, is specifically targeted at the widely distributed, but under-powered DCT-2000 class set-tops built by Motorola Broadband. Using a full-blown middleware layer on these thin client boxes, he says, amounts to nothing more than "overkill" that wastes limited resources.

With it, subscribers can access WorldGate to send and receive e-mail, chat online, shop, play games, and surf the Web, etc. TV Guide's new IPG release promises increased functionality, while Concurrent's VOD system will allow for instant call up of digital movie titles that can be controlled with VCR-like capabilities.

3D for you and me?

And there are other competitors looming, too. Kishore points to two other companies whose technology could literally change the face of EPG/IPGs in the not-too-distant future–iSurfTV and Predictive Networks.

iSurfTV is "looking at this multimedia, interactive environment where you've got a more mature interactive landscape," notes Kishore. iSurfTV's Chief Intellectual Properties Officer Dan Kikinis says the company's IPG approach is based on the concept of texture mapping, as opposed to the more common character generator-based guide.

"Essentially," says Kikinis, "texture mapping has come from the 3D game world. You paint, for example, text, images or whatever on a bit map and then you apply that bit map to a geometric surface to create an object.

"By arranging objects in a 3D space, presentations have more impact. Users can also enhance certain objects by bringing them closer into focus. Texture mapping's free form has none of the font limits that can be found in a character generator. Fonts can also change size and shape, as well as zoom in and out."

Texture mapping would also allow an operator to have multiple live video streams–if the set-top has the horsepower to do so, says Gene Feroglia, iSurfTV's CEO.

As a result, says Kishore, "I think gradually we're going to see the evolution of the IPG in that direction for everybody. There are going to be different choices and different kinds of choices because it's not just about programming.

"It's a lot of different things that will start coming through to the consumer. So, you need a launching pad, a primary interface or a full screen that can handle all of that. I think it evolves beyond the grid-based guide as we see it right now."

Who's watching what and when

Kishore also believes the IPGs of the near future will sport other innovations aimed at making them easier to use by consumers.

"I think predictive technology of some sort is going to be increasingly incorporated into IPGs," says Kishore. "I think 300 channels are way too much to surf. And if you've got other interactive applications that start coming into it–400 titles of VOD and other iTV applications–it becomes very difficult for people to navigate. So, you need some kind of technology very similar to what Predictive Networks produces."

And what's that? Devin Hosea, Predictive's CEO, explains: "The core competency of the company is our ability, whether it's a STB, computer or any interactive device, to profile that individual based on their use of the device. We can figure out how old they are, how many kids they have, how much money they make–all sorts of demographics, psychograhics, content affinities, etc."

Hosea says the company's most recent product launch, SmartNavigator, "is going to be the real growth engine" for the company because "it turns the current EPG/IPG channel-based paradigm on its head."

"With all the channels being offered," explains Hosea, "surfing by channel is a real pain." So SmartNavigator is used to automatically re-order all the channels in the background so that a viewer can surf programming that is of most interest to his profile. "In essence, it figures out who you are and your profile. Then, after searching all that's being offered, the most interesting thing that's on TV that fits your profile will come up first, etc."

Hosea says the company's alpha trial with 30 participants has "found some really dramatic results." Among them was a dramatic increase in the purchase of PPV or VOD offerings when they're mixed into the personalized program guide just like other channels.

"Instead of having to go to your guide and find the VOD and order it," says Hosea, "it just pops up and lets you know that if you click here, you can watch 'Gladiator.' As a result, people just end up seeing such opportunities a lot more." In the trial, he says, they found viewers were buying nearly three more PPV/VOD titles per month.

The technology can also be used to increase subscriber numbers in subscription-based services like HBO, etc. That, says Hosea, is because the service "pretends" it doesn't know that the user doesn't have a particular service, and lists it anyway. This whets the viewer's appetite for programming that matches his/her profile and interests.

Time will tell...soon

Next month's ITC ruling could fundamentally change the EPG/IPG landscape, or it could further entrench the existing hierarchy.

However, new service offerings are going to continue to roll down the broadband pipe. That means EPG/IPGs are going to have to deal quickly and creatively with the flood of information that consumers will be looking for to make informed viewing choices.

While the denouement of the EPG/IPG drama is still somewhat hazy, it's clear by all available signs that a surprise ending is certainly not out of the question.

Until then . . . push # to return to the main screen.

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