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Comcast To Give Video Devices A Shot In The ARM

In a move that could produce smaller, less power-hungry IP video devices, Comcast and Cisco Systems are among the founding members of the Linaro Digital Home Group, an initiative that aims to accelerate the use of ARM-based silicon in digital home applications.

The lower-power ARM architecture has taken hold in mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, and now appears to be poised for use in small form-factor video devices, including clients that run the Reference Design Kit (RDK), the preintegrated software stack for IP set-tops and gateways that’s being managed by Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Liberty Global.

“The close collaboration between ARM and Linaro is a critical component for the ARM eco-system,” said Sree Kotay, Comcast’s chief software architect, in a statement. “We are looking forward to the Linaro Digital Home Group enabling the ARM platform for our Comcast devices. This is an important step to ARM extending beyond closed cell phone operating systems.”

“Linaro has been collaborating with ARM, Comcast, Hisilicon and STMicroelectronics on the RDK…for the last year,” added Linaro CEO George Grey, CEO of Linaro.

“The intent is to do for cable CPE what the Linaro Foundation already did for mobile gadgetry: reduce fragmentation and differentiation across the SoC (System on a Chip) landscape, using standard builds and distribution tools,” Ken Morse, CTO of connected devices at Cisco, said in this blog post explaining why the tech giant joined the group.

He also mentioned that Cisco contributed its routing software to RDK Management LLC (the J.V. of Comcast, TWC and Liberty Global), for use in RDK-based devices that will extend beyond the set-top to also include cable modems and all-service gateways. Speaking on a panel at The Cable Show, Comcast CTO Tony Werner referred to this broadband-encompassing effort as “RDK-B.”

Comcast’s X1 platform is the first to use boxes powered by the RDK, which thus far have relied on MIPS-based processors. Shifting to an ARM-based platform should enable the MSO and its vendors to build smaller, more power-efficient RDK-based video devices.  

Comcast hasn’t announced any RDK-facing products that will use ARM, but a possible candidate is the Xi4, a successor to the Xi3, which is an all-IP HD client box that Comcast expects to deploy by the second half of the year. During an interview at The Cable Show in April, Matt Strauss, Comcast Cable’s senior vice president and general manager, video, said the operator was developing a model dubbed the Xi4, indicating that it will be a smaller version of the Xi3.

The introduction of ARM could present more competition to incumbent RDK set-top chipmakers such as Broadcom and Intel, and open up the market to other silicon suppliers, including several that have traditionally been focused on the mobile market.

Other founding members of the LHG include chip-pointing companies and organization such as ARM, Allwinner Technology, Fujitsu Semiconductor, Hisilicon Technologies, and STMicroelectronics, as well as ZTE. Examples of other chipmakers in the ARM’s race include Qualcomm and Marvell.

According to Linaro, an organization that has been providing common core software for ARM-powered, Linux-based mobile devices since June 2010, LHG’s membership of chip vendors, OEMs and operators will collaborate on digital home apps, including set-top boxes, televisions, media players, and gaming and home gateway devices.

The LHG steering committee is tasked with several key initiatives for the software engineering effort, including the creation of a common Linux platform called the Linaro Stable Kernel that will integrate elements such as digital rights management, and the DLNA’s CVP-2 guidelines, which aim to securely link pay TV services to retail CE devices such as PCs, tablets and smart TVs, without requiring a set-top box. Versions will also be created that support the base layer of the RDK, Android-based products and manufacturer-specific Linux-based products.

That work will also extend to media framework APIs for a range of media hardware, codecs, and other “peripheral functions” across multiple members’ SoCs, with the goal of improving middleware portability. It will also look to tie in “key open source standards software,” including HTML5.