Cox Turns To NDS For Guidance

Cox Communications has tapped NDS Group to create an on-screen guide that will merge all of its digital video services into a single, consistent interface designed for big-screen TVs.

The new guide, which Cox expects to begin widely deploying in 2009, will take the place of the Aptiv guide from Gemstar-TV Guide (now part of Macrovision) as the operator’s primary set-top application, running on Motorola and Cisco Systems' Scientific Atlanta set-tops. Cox currently has about 3.2 million digital cable customers.

“There’s no question that as the expansion of content offerings continues to grow geometrically, if not exponentially, there needed to be a better way to navigate that content,” said Steve Necessary, Cox’s vice president of video strategy and product management. “The reality is, that’s not an area where the industry has necessarily excelled.”

The new NDS guide, optimized for 16:9 high-definition screens, will integrate linear TV listings, video-on-demand services, digital video recorder (DVR) and interactive applications, into a centralized interface.

While the guide is still under development, Cox’s priority for the project is to improve basic video-navigation features. For example, it will include an integrated search function spanning a viewer’s DVR recordings, the on-demand library and live TV programs.

“The goal is to make is simple, consistent and intuitive,” Necessary said. “Those are easy words to say, but when you try to productize that it becomes amazingly challenging at times.”

Future elements Cox and NDS expect to add to the guide include enhanced personalization features, such as support for multiple users per household, as well as social networking features to let friends and family members recommend programs to each another.

“Part of the active debate for us internally is which [features] will make the first phase versus the second phase,” Necessary said. “We think the inherent navigation features of the new guide will be substantially better, so there’s a bit more urgency there.”

Under the multiyear agreement, Cox is providing input and overall direction but NDS is developing the actual lines of code. Cox is already using NDS’ IEX solution for automated set-top box testing.

Necessary said Cox chose to work with NDS because it is “skilled in execution,” especially with tru2way applications (the consumer brand of CableLabs’ OpenCable interactive TV specification). He noted that NDS has worked with South Korean cable operators to deploy tru2way-based guides.

Cox’s decision to outsource the development of its next guide differs from the paths picked by Comcast, which established a joint venture with Gemstar-TV Guide to create i-Guide, and Time Warner Cable, which handles guide development in-house.

“On this initiative, I’m actually quite happy that we’ve reached outside the company, not only for assistance on the science of user-interface design but also on the execution,” Necessary said.

On the other hand, DirecTV uses NDS-supplied set-top box software and on-screen guides. Did that give Cox executives pause?

That “was clearly a topic of conversation” internally at Cox, Necessary said. The company’s conclusion, though, was that NDS’ experience with the satellite operator was “a clear positive.”

“Suffice it to say, we got comfortable with the integrity of NDS being capable and willing to keep the intellectual property separate,” Necessary added.

With the new guide from NDS, Cox will pursue a “bifurcated” guide strategy. On standard-definition set-tops already in use, Cox will standardize on the Aptiv guide, phasing out the Scientific Atlanta Residential Application (SARA) guide in systems where that is still in use. Current HD boxes will be migrated to the NDS-developed guide.

Cox is also preparing to launch a TiVo-branded service in its New England market. “That’s marching forward,” Necessary said. Comcast launched its TiVo-based service in Boston and surrounding areas in the first quarter of the year.