Cox Rigs 'Trio' Big-Screen Guide

After five years -- and some unanticipated development delays -- Cox Communications' Trio interactive program guide is about to land in customers' hands.

The operator has packed several juicy new features into the guide, including three-pane navigation; integrated search across TV, video-on-demand and DVR recordings; and multiroom DVR. Moreover, the Trio IPG is designed to take full advantage of the real estate on 16-by-9 HDTVs.

"It's the face of Cox a customer probably sees the most, several times a day," said Steve Necessary, the operator's vice president of strategy and product management.

Cox plans to launch Trio in two markets, which Necessary declined to identify, by midyear. The MSO expects it to be deployed to Cox's entire footprint by year-end. Over time, Cox intends for the Trio guide to replace Rovi's Passport guide in its Motorola markets and Cisco's SARA guide in its Scientific Atlanta systems, although it could be many years before those guides are officially retired.

The Trio guide will be available to Cox customers as part of the "Plus Package," which includes multiroom DVR service, additional DVR storage space and additional high-definition channels. Cox hasn't announced pricing but Necessary said the new Trio HD DVR will be offered at a premium.

The guide runs on tru2way, also known as CableLabs' OpenCable Application Platform, on Cisco Systems' Explorer 8642 HD DVR with a 500-Gigabyte hard drive -- up to three times as much storage as Cox's existing DVRs. Multiroom DVR support is provided via the Multimedia over Coax Alliance specification, to up to two Explorer 1642 HD set-tops.

The Trio guide provides three panels: the left-hand panel lists channels vertically in numerical order; the middle panel shows programs on the selected channel; and the right-hand panel provides a description of the program selected in the middle pane.

The guide also lets customers search and browse related content across linear TV, on-demand titles and DVR recordings, based on title, actor/director and keyword. The Trio's browse-related feature identifies shows that have something in common with a currently selected show, such as upcoming episodes, related series, shows within the same genre or shows staring the same actors.

The new Cisco set-tops, meanwhile, have the capability to tune between 860 MHz and 1 GHz. Cox plans to deliver additional HD channels included with Plus Package in that spectrum.

Still, the Trio guide -- in its initial incarnation -- lacks some key features that some of Cox's competitors already offer. The initial release will not include content-recommendation features. Nor will the first version of Trio provide the ability to manage DVR recordings from a Web browser or mobile phone, a feature that DirecTV, Dish Network, Verizon FiOS TV and AT&T U-verse TV offer.

Cox had to cut off the feature list off a certain point to be able to get the Trio guide to market, Necessary said. "This is Trio 1.0," he said. "There will be a 2.0 and a 3.0. The good news is, it's never done."

Cox started work in 2005 on the project, called SCIN (pronounced "skin"), for "Simple Consistent Intuitive Navigation," starting with focus-group research. "We heard some complaints about the guides we had in the market," Cox executive director of product development Lisa Pickelsimer said.

The operator wanted an integrated front-end that would unify its IPG, VOD client and interactive TV apps. "We realized our guides were, in fact, broken," Pickelsimer said. "We took out a clean sheet of paper to design this."

After evaluating 14 companies, Cox picked NDS Group as its development partner and enlisted industrial-design firm Frog Design to create the interface elements. The operator created a 1,000-page document outlining the specifics for how the guide should work.

"One of our directives was that the guide should support future features and capabilities," Pickelsimer said.

In addition to enhanced navigation, Trio includes personalization features, to let up to eight members of the household enter their favorite channels, save searches, pick a profile picture and set other preferences.

Among Trio's other features are mosaic views that provide a live look at up to six channels grouped by news, children's and sports programming. The guide also provides caller ID on TV, and the VOD menus include poster art. All the guide data is delivered over the embedded DOCSIS cable modem in the Cisco set-top.

Previously, Cox had anticipated rolling out the IPG starting in August 2009. What held things up were a longer-than-expected cycle of software development, hardware integration and testing requirements, according to executives.

The Trio guide runs on Cisco's Axiom OCAP middleware. Necessary said it was "unlikely" Cox would port the guide to the Motorola set-top platform this year. Cox is about 55% Cisco and 45% Motorola. In Moto systems, the Trio guide will be deployed on the Explorer boxes using a Motorola-based CableCard.

"It was easier to do the integration with one OCAP stack instead of two," Necessary said.

Cox still needs to rewrite about 22 applications for the tru2way-based Trio, according to Pickelsimer, including the e-mail on the TV app, news, sports, weather, games, movie listings and horoscopes.

Cox owns the intellectual property for the Trio guide, but NDS has rights to offer it to other MSOs.