OCAP Inches Closer to Reality

More than any new-product release, the biggest news from last week's NCTA show in Las Vegas concerned vendors' and operators' showing steady progress in rolling out standard technologies. This new development should allow cable to offer more hi-def and on-demand content, deliver targeted advertising, and explore new interactive programming applications.

One such technology is the long-percolating OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) standard that allows programmers to deploy interactive applications across a variety of set-top platforms. OCAP, an extremely popular topic on the show floor, is the byproduct of a government-mandated initiative to make set-tops a retail product by standardizing various functions.

OCAP will put common software, or “middleware,” in digital set-tops, allowing Java developers to create an application that will then run on any set-top. It will also run on new “digital-cable–ready” TVs that include slots for CableCARD—the removable security technology—allowing interactive applications to be delivered without a set-top at all.

With OCAP, programmers and operators no longer have to create customized applications for each set-top in order to provide simple interactivity, such as graphic overlays that feature targeted advertising, polling applications, or links to weather and traffic information.

“We're happy about OCAP because it rationalizes the fractured platform environment,” says Weather Channel President Debora Wilson, who demonstrated an OCAP application that would let viewers call up detailed local weather information, as well as access current conditions for up to 40,000 cities.

In the long run, the Java development community could foster richer applications that leverage the power of the two-way plant, giving operators a leg up on satellite. Several panel speakers referred to creating a “killer app” for the set-top that would be the equivalent of a ringtone for a cellphone.

“The potential next year is for a big network to build an application and have it on 10 million or 15 million boxes, for the same cost as putting it on 100,000,” says Patrick Donoghue, VP of ITV product management for Time Warner Cable.

While the industry believes in OCAP's potential, it isn't rushing it to the market. Time Warner Cable is further ahead than other operators in deploying OCAP, because Scientific-Atlanta, which supplies some 70% of its set-tops, is ahead of Motorola in supporting OCAP. Time Warner Cable has taken delivery of some S-A, OCAP-enabled DVRs, says Senior VP of Advanced Technology Mike Hayashi, and is already releasing select Samsung OCAP-enabled HD set-tops. By July 2007, he expects Time Warner systems to be OCAP-capable on the S-A platform.

Even though the industry has been developing the OCAP technology for 10 years, Hayashi cautions that “OCAP is still early.” Actually running a new OCAP application on the S-A platform would require significant testing, he says.

“One issue is the performance of OCAP integration,” he says. “If [an application] showed up today, we would be concerned about performance, how much memory it takes up, etc. We want the same flexibility analog TV had.”

Advance/Newhouse Communications is on a similar OCAP-pace to Time Warner, says Arthur Orduna, senior VP of policy and product, because the vast majority of its set-tops are S-A boxes. Cox, which has about a 50/50 split between Motorola and S-A boxes, has been working with a transitional step to OCAP called OnRamp, a Java-based application standard that is transferable to OCAP boxes, says Chief Technology Officer Chris Bowick. Cox is also testing OCAP in two markets.

“We'll have a national footprint in the first half of '08,” says Bowick.

Comcast, with a high percentage of Motorola set-tops, has OCAP trials in several markets, but it won't roll out until early 2008, says James Mumma, director of video product development. For the near term, it is working with the Enhanced TV standard, also known as “EBIF,” or “Enhanced Binary Interchange Format,” to enable interactive applications. EBIF can work on legacy set-tops, such as the widely deployed Motorola DCT-2000 set-top; Tandberg Television was demonstrating such functionality—a T-commerce application with Home Shopping Network on a DCT-2000—in its booth.

“We're invested in EBIF,” Mumma says. “It runs on a low-end set-top box, which is key as we put together a product plan and a roadmap [to OCAP].