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Bi-Directional Cable Draws Near

The intersections between consumer electronics and the cable television industry increased significantly in 2004, and if a ground-breaking agreement with Samsung Electronics announced in October is any indication, it will continue to multiply in 2005.

Throughout 2004, the fruits of the “uni-directional” agreement between cable and CE providers began to appear in increasing quantities on retail shelves. These are digital and HDTV sets equipped with the CableCARD slot, to descramble premium cable programs without the need for an external set-top box.

A point of context: Three years ago, a handful of CableCARD-equipped TVs showed up at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). By the holiday selling season of 2004, an estimated 1 million CableCARD-equipped devices were scheduled to be “in the pipeline” toward consumers.

As of late 2004, 60 digital TVs, from 11 manufacturers, had been self-verified or CableLabs-verified to comply with the uni-directional test suite.

The negotiations for bi-directional devices continue between the two entities. By contrast, the agreement between Samsung and CableLabs serves to accelerate the development of digital products that include interactive elements, such as navigational guides, on-demand video ordering, and other interactive applications.

The agreement with Samsung is available to all consumer electronics manufacturers. It grants intellectual property rights required to build interactive devices that are in compliance with the OpenCable hardware and software specifications. The agreement is known industrially as “CHILA” — the CableCARD Host Interface Licensing Agreement.

(The agreement was formerly known as “PHILA,” for POD Host Interface Licensing Agreement; when the “POD” moniker was shifted to the more consumer-friendly “CableCARD,” the license name was adjusted.)

At the heart of the Samsung/CableLabs agreement is the OpenCable Applications Platform, or OCAP.

What is OCAP? We define it as middleware software that enables the developers of interactive television services and applications to design products that 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 with a means of receiving all of the available innovations in cable services, there will be a need for a common software layer so all services run on all devices. Having to manage new devices purchased by consumers at retail will require (at the least) a common way to ready those devices for service (i.e. “provisioning”), and a common way to communicate with services.

OCAP provides a software mechanism for program networks to bundle interactive elements into their service offerings, so long as there is “companion software” at the CE level to run the application in a common way, serving the function of a common operating system. A common example is to “vote someone off the island,” or otherwise engage with a program in process.

Although it is technically possible for cable providers to host applications from program networks without OCAP, it is a decidedly sub-optimal situation, because the programmer would have to separately port the application to dozens of proprietary CE or set-top operating systems.

Without a standard and ubiquitous software environment, like OCAP, content providers are faced with having to make a choice among available software platforms, which don’t always interoperate. As a direct result, program networks have been reluctant to develop interactive materials that run on only a portion of cable’s national coverage area.

OCAP is the cable industry’s answer to the need for application uniformity. By transitioning to a single software environment, cable providers and program networks can work to deploy a single set of applications to OCAP-enabled devices — such as what Samsung agreed to build when it signed the CableLabs agreement in October.

Interoperability events continue for OCAP developers. Last summer, two dozen companies participated in an OCAP interoperability effort at CableLabs, the third such interop event. The intent was to assure that applications written independently by content providers can run successfully on an OCAP stack built into consumer electronics devices or cable set-tops.

During the OCAP interoperability event, a dozen developers showed a mixture of applications. Some were delivered “bound” in an MPEG video stream and are directly related to the program content — voting off the island, for instance — while others were delivered “unbound” in a separate transport stream and didn’t directly relate to the content. An example of the latter is a program guide or on-demand menu.

In both cases, the applications worked in an interoperable fashion across multiple hardware platforms that were running OCAP middleware.

It is anticipated that the number of OCAP-based hardware devices such as CableCARD-equipped digital and HDTV sets will grow in the same fashion as did OpenCable hardware items. Samsung set the first marker on OCAP inclusion; other CE manufacturers are welcome to get a similar headstart.