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Cable’s Blueprint for Interactivity

After nine years of development around the OpenCable Applications Platform — and nine promises from backers that this is the year of OCAP — the interactive-television technology may finally be ready to play in digital-cable customers’ living rooms.

OCAP, billed as a unifying standard that would allow snazzy new interactive-TV applications to run on a wide array of cable set-top boxes in participating operators’ systems, is finally set to go from drawing board to deployment. Rollouts are planned in nine markets by the end of this year.

During a recent Webcast sponsored by the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, experts said OCAP is also set to evolve even more capabilities, including home networking and whole-home digital video recording.

SHARED BLUEPRINT

OCAP provides a shared blueprint for applications providers, so they don’t have to worry about what set-top box their applications will end up on, and what cable operators field it. It is based largely on Java, a programming language almost universally accepted among consumer-electronics and computer-products suppliers.

While nine years of development of technology has led to a final first version now being in place, OCAP hasn’t seen wide adoption among cable operators.

It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem: applications providers haven’t wanted to create products that can run in an OCAP scheme until they see cable operators adopt it, and operators have hesitated to put the OCAP scheme in place until they see more applications.

That might be changing. At January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a group of cable operators including Time Warner Cable promised to roll out OCAP systems by October, and there are signs that work is under way. Time Warner Cable has stated it will roll OCAP applications out in New York City; Milwaukee; Green Bay, Wis.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Waco, Texas, while Comcast Corp. has pledged to do so in Philadelphia, Denver and Northern New Jersey.

Joan Gillman, vice president of interactive TV and advanced advertising at Time Warner Cable, said work is under way to meet the October target date for rolling out OCAP in Time Warner’s initial markets.

'BUILDING REACH’

For Time Warner, the key selling point for adopting OCAP is creating a nationwide system for interactive TV applications spanning multiple cable operators’ systems, and giving cable operators scale in applications development critical as they face increasing competition.

“It’s building reach we believe will give us the long-term competitive advantage,” Gillman said.

Time Warner has assigned a team of engineers to work on the OCAP project, and is requiring all new applications providers to conform their products to OCAP. Still, the cable firm is taking a step-by-step approach in rolling OCAP out, so as not to disrupt existing services.

At headends in the six initial OCAP markets, Time Warner engineers are making the needed upgrades, Gillman said. That includes installing servers that will support dual OCAP and the older non-OCAP interactive programming guides beamed to digital cable customers and making sure the initial group of OCAP applications can run on common servers.

The OCAP engineering team also is meeting with each division to walk people there through the rollout process, including what equipment needs to be ordered and what training will be needed for headend operations engineers “so everyone is on deck and ready to go in the next few months,” Gillman said.

Gillman said if all goes well, Time Warner should be able to extend the OCAP rollout across its entire footprint, even as it starts into interactive TV market trials in 2007.

PREDICTABLE HURDLES

As it goes into these trials, the OCAP technology faces predictable hurdles going from the drawing board to the TV set or set-top box.

One major issue that has already cropped up is the problem of applications competing for resources within the OCAP device, be it a TV set or a set-top box.

This is particularly true in more advanced, high-definition products that have more functions to manage, Don Dulchinos, senior vice president of advanced platforms and services at CableLabs, said.

For example, if a cable application like on-demand video is running and the viewer also activates a photo viewer to run on the TV screen, the OCAP-enabled TV has to decide which has the priority.

There also is talk of layering on interfaces that will allow Internet Protocol-based data to stream onto the TV or set-top box.

Even as these systems roll out using the original OCAP specification, work is now under way for an upgrade version that would include features such as home networking and multi-room digital video recording.

Tentatively dubbed OCAP 1.1, the specification may be ready for release by CableLabs some time in the third quarter this year.

OCAP 1.1 may also provide extensions allowing it extend beyond the set-top to including DVD players, gaming consoles and portable players.

“We want to think about how the OCAP software can allow the customer to access each of these devices on the network,” Dulchinos said.

ABC AWAITS

On the content side, ABC Interactive has been developing interactive products mostly for Internet audiences for the last six years, and now it is looking to extend to the TV using OCAP, said Jonathan Bokor, senior director of business development and sales for Walt Disney Internet Group/ABC Enhanced TV.

The fact OCAP is creating a common platform across multiple devices and cable operators “is crucial for us,” Bokor said, adding that it not only simplifies applications development, but it can reach enough viewers to in turn attract advertisers.

ABC Interactive has been involved in the OCAP testing and it even demonstrated an OCAP-based interactive application surrounding the hit series Lost at this spring’s National Show.

It also is working on a feature that would provide a link pointing a viewer watching a program to an on-demand, long-format ad with the click of a remote.

“That is a crucial element for our advertising partners, and it could offset loss in advertising viewing on DVR systems,” Bokor said.

There are still some areas that need improvement. Bokor said if developers such as ABC Interactive were provided with some templates that are pre-certified and tested to work with OCAP, “that would make it easier for us.” He added: “If a central service for doing that service could be made available, that could make it cheaper for us to develop more robust applications and then deploy those applications.”

SET-TOP EAGERNESS

Cable set-top box makers also lining up for OCAP. They include Pace Micro Technology, which will show off a new DVR set-top box based on OCAP at this week’s Society of Cable and Telecommunications Engineers’ Expo show in Denver.

Motorola Inc. is preparing for the final arrival of OCAP, as part of a wider initiative to completely revamp the software systems it uses to drive set-top boxes, cell phones and other consumer electronics devices.

With every device going forward tapping the Java programming language and the Linux operating system, Motorola is hoping its Seamless Mobility initiative will lead products able to ship around content anywhere, to any device.

That new software architecture is readying for trials, and it now has samples of that software in several – although unnamed — major cable operators’ technology labs.

“As it turns out, OCAP for us tends to be a byproduct of that,” said John Burke, Motorola’s corporate vice president and general manager of digital video solutions. “As we have developed our new architecture, we also included an OCAP middleware solution that is fully compliant with the current 1.0 standard that exists for OCAP.”

But while OCAP plays a role, Motorola’s software architecture also extends beyond the interactive-TV world, providing plugs to funnel content onto Internet and mobile devices OCAP itself doesn’t cover, Burke noted.

EVOLVING STANDARD

Down the road, the OCAP standard will evolve.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the extensions that we have in our solution don’t become candidates to get baked into the OCAP standards long-term and we are more than happy to support that,” Burke said. “But the world of innovation is not a static state. Standards are great, and we fully support standards, but we can’t just sit and wait for the standards to be established.”

Another advantage for Motorola: its new software scheme can be downloaded into most of the advanced set-top boxes it has already deployed, including its DCT 5100 and DCT 6100 high-definition boxes and its 6400-series DVR boxes as well as a good portion of its lower-end DCT 2500 standard definition boxes. All have the memory and the processing capability to accept its new software including the OCAP capability.

“What we are seeing happening in the lab environment today with most of the larger service providers is they’ve got our OCAP implementation and they are doing their lab-based trials on the hardware they’ve been buying from us for a while now,” Burke said.

With those trials, 2006 may well be the year OCAP finally becomes a technical reality.

“For lots of different reasons, the standard has been slow to evolve and emerge,” Burke said. “But we really are at the point now where I think elements of all of this are becoming a reality.”