Comcast Adds to OpenCable Options

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.’s deal to provide Comcast Corp. with Panasonic’s OpenCable-compliant middleware for advanced set-top boxes serves two purposes.

First off, it cleans up a legacy 150,000-order set-top contract Comcast inherited from AT&T Broadband. Secondly, it provides another avenue for the No. 1 U.S. MSO to advance its Open Cable Application Platform (OCAP) development.

The deal provides Matushita’s Panasonic team the chance to work with the country’s largest cable company in developing OCAP middleware, and a valuable learning curve to deploy such software in both set-top boxes and OCAP-capable TVs that will one day be sold at retail.

For Comcast, the deal is another element in their OCAP development strategy: It recently announced an OpenCable joint venture with Time Warner Cable to speed the platform’s development.

“This is a parallel effort that could dovetail with the joint venture,” said Mark Hess, senior vice president of digital TV at Comcast.

“We have to understand more than one OCAP platform,” he added.

While Panasonic might not be known historically as a middleware player, cable-TV division director Dick Strabel noted: “Panasonic has always been a leader in MHP [Multimedia Home Platform] in Europe,” having built test suites for that market.

“We have the technical knowledge to build MHP. OCAP is based on MHP,” Strabel said. “It’s a natural progression to work on the OCAP stack.”

Indeed, Panasonic helped Cable Television Laboratories Inc. get OCAP off the ground several years ago.

The company signed a one-way set-top licensing deal with CableLabs even before the cable and consumer electronics industries announced their one-way agreement late last year.

Strabel said Panasonic’s first OCAP middleware set-top will have an HD decoder.

While the set-top will be ready relatively soon, Panasonic will have to integrate with existing headends and legacy applications, such as on-screen guides, before it can be tested in the marketplace. Those guides, for example, need to be written in Java — work that’s now underway, sources said.

Given the need for both hardware and application integration, the OCAP set-top won’t likely be tested until the third quarter of next year, Strabel and Hess said.

Panasonic has an eye towards building OCAP-enabled TV sets one day, Strabel said. The OCAP middleware set-top will allow Panasonic to work out the bugs before building OCAP TV sets on a mass scale, he said.

“We’re a consumer company, and this opens the world for consumer device for cable systems, including TVs,” Strabel said.