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ICTV Supports MP3, MPEG-4

Hoping to capitalize on the public's infatuation with new Internet technologies, ICTV Inc. said it will introduce new software that supports MPEG-4 video streaming and MP3 music-file downloads from the Internet through set-top boxes.

ICTV's software already can handle media players from Microsoft Corp., Real Networks Inc., Apple Computer Corp. and Macromedia Corp., the company said. Now, it's adding the popular MP3 and MPEG-4 (Moving Picture Expert Group) to its arsenal, along with Pulse 3.5, Veon, INNOVATV, BeHere, IPIX and Multipath.

The move is designed to provide cable operators with performance advantages for subscribers that use the set-top to browse the Internet, said ICTV chairman and chief executive officer Robert Clasen.

"MSOs can now be clear that if they want to offer streaming media to their consumers, with applications like Alwaysi and Yack we've got the goods," he said.

In addition to traditional audio and video streaming, ICTV can now support software that includes three-dimensional rendering for real estate listings and Macromedia "Flash" animation from entertainment sites.

The company is positioning itself to be somewhat competitive to middleware companies.

"ICTV can now support virtually all the major content types on the Internet," said Michael Collette, ICTV's senior vice president of marketing. "At the same time, it has become exceedingly clear that none of the other middleware vendors is able to field anything more than a very simple utility browser."

For its part, WorldGate Communications Inc. said it's working on a software update that will allow users to download MP3 and other PC-based audio files from the Internet. A spokesman said the software will be released in the first quarter.

WorldGate is still working on streaming video applications, but doesn't expect those to be ready until late 2001.

David Limp, senior vice president of corporate development at Liberate Technologies Inc., said his company's software will support a handful of popular plug-ins in the "5000" series of boxes, including Flash 4, certain Real Networks software that includes MP3 files and the Cinemapak version of Apple's "QuickTime."

"We're focused on authoring what MSOs will offer their customers," Limp said. "Generic browsing from the TV hasn't been successful thus far."

ICTV has often been ahead of a curve than MSOs didn't necessarily follow. It bulked up technology at the headend years ago, as operators focused on the 5000 series of set-tops. So far, ICTV's only deployment has been with the independently owned St. Joseph Cablevision system in St. Joseph, Mo.

The evolving Internet presents a conundrum for operators, since HyperText Markup Language (HTML) includes all kinds of video, audio, animation, games and 3-D offerings built with plug-ins that convert Internet-protocol data into a media experience.

TV browsers can convert that content for display on television screens. ICTV believes operators can exploit Internet broadband content to generate new revenue by making traditional Internet plug-ins work in the TV environment.

Collette believes some MSOs will be interested, because the headend-based plug-ins can work on existing digital set-tops already in the field. And ICTV can download the latest version of a plug-in to the headend, instead of sending software to thousands of boxes.

"The broadband Internet is not just about streaming media," Collette said. "It's about new horizons that are reached with new tools. The tools require both bandwidth and processing power.

"Plug-ins are PC apps and they don't run on set-tops," he added. "With our patented, PC-based architecture, we have been able to adapt readily to that evolution of the marketplace."

The Carmel Group chief executive officer Jimmy Schaeffler said: "Broadband HTML content on the TV is a large category going forward with considerable revenue potential. Rich, interactive media is a very likely source for killer new applications."