If all goes to plan, certified OCAP
middleware could roll off the line by
mid-2003, opening the door on a
common platform for a mixture of
interactive applications and services.
In today's precarious economic environment, interactive TV beyond video-on-demand seems a distant reality. However, a clearer picture of how common set-top middleware will come to market, cementing secure, retail-ready set-top boxes with interoperable software, is beginning to emerge.
CableLabs, the hub of cable specifications activity, was busy this spring releasing documents further honing the OpenCable platform.
In May, it released the 2.0 iteration of OCAP (Open Cable Application Platform) middleware, which builds upon the 1.0 January release by adding support for Web formats such as XHTML, XML and ECMAScript to the Java-based execution engine. OCAP borrows heavily from the European Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) project, which adopted the Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) for set-top box middleware.
Ongoing interoperability events at CableLabs, the first of which occurred in February with about 15 companies, will, among other things, shed light on how a cable network will deliver OCAP-based applications to the set-top.
"What we are trying to do is get as many hardware platforms as possible" in the lab, says Michael Davis, project director for CableLabs' OpenCable business relations. Set-tops are brought into CableLabs with OCAP-based middleware and MHP-based applications installed, and plugged into a network with carousels and devices to stream applications from a headend.
According to Davis, an interop event was scheduled for late July, followed by another in September or October. To date, the initial interops have focused on OCAP 1.0.CERTIFICATION IN 2003
OCAP certification test suites are under development, says Davis, with first-generation OCAP products planned by mid-2003 and deployments expected in late-2003. These initial versions of OCAP will most likely be 1.0-based. The certification process will fall under the broader "OpenCable" initiative, and there are no plans to qualify headend gear, such as carousels.
An OCAP test environment will consist of three elements, says Davis. First, tests will focus on elements unique to OCAP, down to the Application Programming Interface (API) level to ensure that all APIs are implemented correctly. Secondly, APIs unique to MHP will be tested. Third, CableLabs will test APIs that originate from Sun Microsystems' JavaTV platform.
CableLabs, Davis adds, will certify set-tops with integrated or installed middleware. Set-top manufacturers, meanwhile, will either develop their own OCAP-based software or cut separate deals with software developers.
Though OCAP 1.0 and 2.0 are complete, optional or additional features/functionalities will most likely be handled by specification "extension" documents, Davis says. For example, standardized APIs for personal video recording (PVR) functionality could be defined through an extension.DEVELOPERS SET FOR THE LONG RUN
Clearly, set-top boxes in the field today in North America won't have the horsepower to run OCAP. Tony Wasilewski, chief scientist for Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s subscriber networks division, says a minimum OCAP memory footprint should be 8 megabytes of Flash memory and 16 MB of DRAM memory.
"Set-tops deployed today are not ready for (OCAP) deployment," concedes Wasilewski.
As of early summer 2002, no known working implementation of OCAP was available, with the major set-top middleware developers recognizing the market will take some time to develop.
"The market for MHP and OCAP is still a long-term market," says Vincent Dureau, CTO for set-top software company OpenTV Corp. "It's likely few companies will be able to sustain a long-term investment and have solutions ready when those markets emerge." He speculates that two or three years could pass before those markets truly take hold.
OpenTV, now controlled by Liberty Media Corp., is building an MHP software stack and "the desire is to make the MHP spec and the OCAP spec as close as possible," says Dureau.
Although the company wasn't involved with the CableLabs' February interoperability event, Dureau says the company has been conducting interoperability events in Europe with many of the same firms that attended the CableLabs affair.
OpenTV has set-top relationships with Panasonic Consumer Electronics as well as with Motorola Broadband Communications Sector, and it may extend those relationships to include an OCAP implementation. OpenTV's strategy is to build on top of Linux, says Dureau, and the company's applications focus is on games.
Scientific-Atlanta and its PowerTV subsidiary are still undecided what direction they will take with regard to an OCAP implementation–to build their own or adopt an MHP-based middleware to layer on top of the PowerTV operating system. S-A Europe last year announced it had demonstrated Alicast Inc.'s DVB-MHP software on Explorer 4000DVB set-tops in Europe. Tality Corp., another MHP developer, marks another possible partner.
Liberate Technologies, according to Craig Siedel, senior director of advanced technology and standards, hasn't made an announcement about its OCAP 1.0 or 2.0 plans, but he points out that Liberate has software in set-tops deployed in DVB networks.
Canal Plus Technologies, notes company Vice President of Marketing Arthur Orduna, is "committed to supporting OCAP 2.0 as we supported OCAP 1.0." He adds that Canal Plus intends to have DVB-MHP boxes in the field in Europe by the end of the year, although the company hasn't announced specifics.
Like OpenTV, Canal Plus will be attending DVB-MHP interop sessions in Europe this year.MICROSOFT DOUBTS
Microsoft Corp. remains a participant in OCAP, says Microsoft TV Director of Marketing Ed Graczyk, but points out that operators are not rolling out high-end set-top boxes that require MHP-compliance.
If a customer requires it, Graczyk adds, Microsoft has the ability to build an OCAP-based middleware, and indeed has an agreement with an unnamed operator to deliver an MHP-compliant version when the operator needs it. Yet both Graczyk and Tony Faustini, director of technology management for Microsoft TV, suggest that OCAP–with a Java-based execution engine layered with a presentation engine–is bigger than what today's business models can support.
In addition, Faustini notes, "if you look at the applications that are emerging around those standards (MHP and OCAP), I haven't seen a compelling application that's going to generate a lot of money."LOTS OF MOXIE
The new kid on the block, Digeo Inc., made a splash at the National Show in May when it announced a partnership with Motorola Broadband to build media centers based on the platform Digeo nabbed in its merger with Moxi Digital Inc. Charter Communications is expected to deploy the multiple tuner, multiple TV platform next year.
Digeo, according to Chief Technology Officer Toby Farrand, will support OCAP applications. The Moxi platform is comprised of an optimized version of Linux as the operating system, a Digeo-developed middleware layer, and an applications framework based on Macromedia Inc.'s Flash format.
While voicing support for OCAP, Farrand points out that Digeo is working through how to reconcile a single service/single point-of-deployment (POD) security device (required by OpenCable-compliant set-tops) into one that supports multi-tuner media centers.TRIAL BY FIRE
Orduna suggests that OCAP ultimately must be proven in the field to demonstrate its viability. Getting an operator to commit a system to a trial deployment is key, he adds.
However, as operators continue their digital TV rollouts, OCAP could be a key cog in the solution to the industry's very near-term problem: digital churn.
Orduna, citing "gigantic" digital TV service churn, asks, "is OCAP going to help (an operator) solve that churn?" Only a trial of OCAP can answer the question whether OCAP and the applications it can support will address this critical issue, he says. "What we're committed to is making sure that the first MSO that deploys that first trial, that it is successful. We'll do whatever the hell it takes to make it successful," says Orduna.
That may require a well-engineered bottle of high-tech "glue."