Inside Time Warner's Interactive-Services Architecture

So far, we've tipped cable's installed base of 10-million-plus digital video boxes upside-down and sideways to better understand what they can and can't do. We've peered into signal paths, tallied the trade-offs posed by under-the-hood resources and mused about how to cram more —and preferably revenue-bearing — interactive-TV services into today's digital boxes.

And still there's more, like collecting the revenue that spurts from interactive services. Perhaps trickiest of all are the automated processes to harvest new, money-making interactive services into the monthly cable bill. Cable people call this "the back office." The rest of the world calls it "enterprise computing."

It's the same thing: what must happen behind the scenes for customers to turn on, tune in or drop out.

Right now, there are three revenue spigots for cable video: Basic cable, pay-per-view and digital cable. Cable operators generally remember that it was agonizing to upgrade their billing systems to add the pay-per-view collection bucket. Ditto for the digital-video subscription collection plate.

With interactive applications, it gets even worse. There are theoretically as many new vendor "partners" as there are new interactive applications. Each participant in the chain needs to mesh with the billing system and any other related plumbing, like video servers. This is always easier said than done.

In today's world, adding a new interactive service to a cable video bill is as analogously disruptive as adding a new line of baked goods to a grocery store — but only if the store retools the cash register, rebuilds all the shelves and moves all the display cases.

Nobody knows this better than Time Warner Cable, which first collided with the gnarly issue of multiple ITV applications — and how to bill for them — more than a half-decade ago with its Full Service Network.

As a direct result, Time Warner's video engineers are well down the trail toward a plan aimed squarely at resolving ITV's back-office issues. They call it "Interactive Services Architecture," or ISA. (A recent Multichannel News
story erroneously pegged it as Industry Standard Architecture.)

Almost everyone within Time Warner's video-supplier mix, from headend to server to billing, knows ISA well: It's the big, white elephant in the negotiating rooms of most major discussions. Although not formally expressed by Time Warner, the perceived sentiment is one of "be ISA-compliant, or no go."

Here's what ISA is not: It is not a specific product, nor is it back-office middleware. It is not a new billing system. It is not the commoditization of video servers, nor an attempt to create an industry standard. ISA is a means by which Time Warner Cable, its existing video and billing partners and its future ITV and applications suppliers can modify their business software to make it faster and easier for everyone involved to launch new services.

If you put ISA in your hand, it would look like a 92-page specification — a lot like the "Pegasus specification" Time Warner's engineers wrote in the mid-1990s (which became Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s Explorer 2000 system). It details necessary business interfaces between servers (set-tops are not included in the spec).

Translation: ISA defines the language all servers should speak when they speak to one another. Functionally, ISA uncouples new-service provisioning from existing billing systems, so sign-up and fulfillment of new ITV services can be done by the cable provider, not its billing vendor.

ISA components are explicitly lumped into two categories: services and infrastructure. The intent is to distinguish ITV products from the stuff used to provision, market and deliver those products — because it shouldn't be necessary to change software used by video servers, data networks, marketing-campaign management or customer-service and user interfaces each time a new service enters the cable-video mix.

In fact, the ultimate goal of ISA matches a deeply-held cable marketing fantasy: to create a way for marketers to let customers try new cable products on impulse, just as they might impulsively toss a tin of Altoids into the basket at the grocery-store checkout.

With something like ISA — and the commonality it creates between heterogenous types of ITV servers — cable providers can offer whim-oriented wares: Sample Home Box Office for the weekend. Try out VOD. Order an upgraded digital tier. Push a button, try the product.

At the core of ISA is an invention of computer science called CORBA, which stands for Common Object Request Broker Architecture. (A Web search also produced a "Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association," aimed at protecting mountain-bikers in Santa Monica, but the two don't appear to be related.)

CORBA, led by a computer-industry consortium known as the Object Management Group, is a cooperative effort to standardize the many juncture points in a computer network. It is widely used by a swath of familiar names: The Weather Channel's meteorology department, Boeing Corp., Nike Inc., CNN Interactive, American Airlines, Netscape Communications Corp., Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems, and on and on.

For cable, CORBA (through ISA or otherwise) represents a common way for cable operators and its suppliers to link up to one another. ISA is one way to do it. Other cable providers may find their own CORBA-like answers.

The important thing is that it starts to happen — because it'd be a shame to launch a lucrative new interactive service without a way to realize its revenues.

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