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Comcast Stretches IPG

The joint venture of Comcast and Gemstar-TV Guide International plans to deliver a new version of the i-Guide interactive program guide for Scientific Atlanta set-top boxes in the third quarter of 2007, a move that should further consolidate Gemstar's hold on the IPG market.

The current A24 version of i-Guide from GuideWorks, which is 51% owned by Comcast and 49% owned by Gemstar-TV Guide, works on Motorola set-tops as well as those from Pace Micro Technologies and Panasonic. GuideWorks, formed in 2004, develops IPGs used by Comcast and also licensed by Gemstar-TV Guide to other cable and satellite operators.

ABOUT VERSION A25

The new A25 version add support for SA boxes, making the guide available on cable's other major set-top supplier.

“It opens us additional boxes where we can have our guides,” said Tom Carson, president of the TV Guide IPG unit for North America.

In addition to running on SA boxes, version A25 will also support switched-digital video and provide enhanced digital-video-recorder functions, which include overlap protection (clipping off a lower-priority show that overlaps with another program by less than 5 minutes) and live-recording extensions (which prompt users to automatically extend recording for a live event).

GuideWorks is now “wrapping up development” on A25, Gemstar-TV Guide director of IPG product strategy Mitch Drummond said. The group is beginning certification testing on Motorola networks now, and expects to release that version by the second quarter of 2007.

The software for the SA version has been finished, and GuideWorks is now working on integration with third-party vendors, such as video-on-demand system providers. Drummond said the SA version is slated to be available in the third quarter.

So when and where will Comcast deploy GuideWorks on SA boxes? The operator isn't ready or willing to say.

“Wherever possible, the preference is to offer a common user experience [across all Comcast systems], but we haven't made any announcements on that,” Comcast senior director of corporate communications Jenni Moyer said.

Today, Comcast uses i-Guide on its installed base of Motorola set-top boxes (with the exception of Washington state, where the operator has deployed Microsoft's guide on Motorola boxes), about 75% of its deployed boxes.

The remaining 25% or so of the set-tops in its various systems — including those Comcast picked up from Adelphia Communications — are from SA, and for now those run the company's own SARA guide, Moyer said.

Charter Communications has already said it will deploy i-Guide in SA set-tops when it becomes available. The operator already offers i-Guide on Motorola set-tops in some of its systems.

Ken Morse, SA vice president of client architecture for subscriber networks, said the Comcast-backed project to port i-Guide to SA set-tops illustrates the larger trend of operators investing in their own IPG technologies. “They're taking ownership of the guide,” he said.

Gemstar-TV Guide powers a good portion of the IPG universe, with licensees that include Charter, Cox Communications, DirecTV and EchoStar Communications. As of Sept. 30, some 47 million cable and satellite subscribers were receiving either the TV Guide-branded IPG or one licensed from Gemstar-TV Guide, according to the company.

SETTINGS PRESERVED

With version A25, GuideWorks worked closely with SA to make sure upgrading to i-Guide will preserve a subscriber's settings, Drummond said.

For example, if an operator were to swap out the SARA guide for i-Guide A25, a subscriber's DVR and parental-control settings, as well as all of the DVR programming on the hard drive, will be carried over, Drummond said.

“The intent is to make it a smooth transition,” he said, adding that SA has “provided a great level of development and support for this.”

That smooth transition would be unlike the experience of RCN customers. In early October, RCN switched to Aptiv's Passport guide, erasing subscriber DVR content and settings in the process.

To shepherd the A25 code to final release, GuideWorks recently hired former Bose director of software engineering Chet Smith as vice president of engineering. Smith joined the Radnor, Pa.-based company in October.

Carson said Smith was brought on board to bring “discipline” to the software-development process. “Generally speaking, what we were trying to do with GuideWorks over the last year or so has been to instill a lot more routine and discipline into the development process,” Carson said.