With each new year, the consumer electronics industry circulates closer and closer into the mainstream of the cable television industry.
The reason is fairly obvious: If both industries commit to cooperate, consumers will be able to connect cool, new CE products to cable's broadband spigots. New paths to innovation are opened, and consumers are the beneficiaries.
At this year's International Consumer Electronics Show, for example, attendees will see a growing array of manufacturers showing digital TV sets equipped with CableCARD slots (where "CableCARD" is the replacement term for "POD," or "point of deployment" module.) That follows a holiday selling season where, for the first time, consumers were able to purchase digital TVs with built-in cable set-tops.
That effort, while in the spotlight for the last year because of the widely publicized plug-and-play agreement, actually dates back at least five years, to an overall CableLabs effort called OpenCable. Part of the origin of the OpenCable project was to achieve interoperable set-tops from many manufacturers. It also helped the industry come up with a plan to separate scrambling techniques from set-tops, so as to meet a federal mandate for removable security last year.
While it likely comes as no surprise to the readers of this magazine, the integration of a set-top box into a television set introduces both technical and political complications. Boundaries can become an issue; interoperability requires dedication and patience.
All of that, for the most part, is behind us now. Two years ago, a small handful of CableCARD-equipped TVs showed up at CES; and at last year's National Cable & Telecommunications Association show, there were three. As 2004 unfolds, the numbers will undoubtedly increase.
CableLabs' part in that effort (and particularly in the "one-way" part of the plug-and-play agreement was and is to develop a test plan, to make sure CE products can be suitably tested for compliance. It is at that level of detail that the most profound cooperation tends to occur: Engineers from both industries working shoulder to shoulder, to assure appropriate testing. Over 500 individual tests were vetted before the joint test suite was complete. (It required a lot of pizza.)
Now with what is the second part of the plug-and-play agreement between cable and consumer electronics companies, we're trying to define and to build two-way digital devices with built-in CableCARDs.
"Two-way" devices contain the CableCARD slot, and also let consumers engage in interactive services — an electronic program guide, or an on-demand offering. These services were excluded from the one-way agreement, partly because there is no "back channel," or "upstream path," to convey a click from the remote control ("yes, I want it") to the remote servers that can accommodate the service or request.
That's where OCAP, or the "OpenCable Applications Platform," enters the picture.
What is OCAP? We define it as a middleware software layer specification that enables the developers of interactive television services and applications to design such products to run successfully on any cable television system in North America, independent of set top or television receiver hardware or operating system software choices.
Put another way, if innovative consumer devices are going to be sold at diverse retail outlets with a means of receiving advanced interactive cable services from the local cable provider, there will be a need for a common software layer. Having to manage new devices, purchased by consumers at retail, will require (at the least) a common way to communicate and execute services.
Its first version, OCAP 1.0, was issued in January of 2002. OCAP 1.0 defines a Java-based execution engine; OCAP 2.0, released by CableLabs in May of 2002, extends to a presentation engine with Web-based technologies, like XHTML, XML and ECMAScript.
In theory, OCAP 1.0 allows applications like electronic program guides or interactive transactions to execute inside the device, and be displayed on TV screens. OCAP 2.0 allows for Web browsers and associated features to display HTML-based content, which opens the door for a wide range of content produced for the World Wide Web.
The OCAP specification is largely based on the European "Multimedia Home Platform" (MHP) middleware specification created by the Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) organization. That means there is also an opportunity for worldwide interoperability of interactive applications and content.
This year's CES is likely to turn up several examples of OCAP-based applications running on consumer devices. Some will show electronic program guides, written in OCAP. Others will show video-on-demand navigation, also developed within an OCAP framework.
Work is progressing on the retail front, too. The CableLabs Go2Broadband (G2B) project — a service locator to help consumers ascertain what cable services are available in their specific service area — continues to thrive. The cable industry recently launched a groundbreaking joint marketing initiative, dedicated to promoting the unique advantages of cable's advanced products and services.
Separately, the "OnlyCableCan" campaign was created to show consumers that cable offers a vast domain of products and services — from high-speed Internet to prime time HDTV to on-demand programming. The timing of this marketing campaign was perfect to take advantage of the G2B locator service version 3.0. Leveraging the previous success of G2B, high-speed Internet and retail, version 3.0 enables support of cable's video offers.
The tricky part about the "manifest destiny" of cable and consumer electronics cooperation is staying true to the goal — letting consumers enjoy new broadband and consumer electronics innovations — while slogging through the tall piles of details that will make that innovation occur.
So far, so good.