OCAP: What It Will Mean

In the blur of industry talk that hovers around the plug-and-play agreement between the consumer electronics industry and cable operators for the delivery of one-way digital services to advanced television receivers with all of its many nuances, is the matter of the OpenCable Applications Platform, or "OCAP." Right now, as larger, more hardware-oriented matters occupy the foreground, OCAP exists as a backdrop conversation.

But for those of us working on it, OCAP is front stage and center — a big thing right now. Here's why.

In the world of plug-and-play, which likely begins this autumn, digital television sets and other devices that include a credit-card-sized slot will start rolling into retail electronics stores. The slot accepts a card that authorizes premium digital cable services. These are the so-called "one-way" or "uni-directional" devices of the plug-and-play agreement. Already, at least three brand-name TV manufacturers are gearing up to produce digital televisions that include the receptacles for premium cable cards.

After that come "two-way" devices, which contain the security card slot but also let consumers engage in interactive services — an electronic program guide, an on-demand offering. These services are excluded for now from the one-way agreement, partly because there is no "back channel," or "upstream path," to convey a click from the remote control to the remotely-located servers that can accommodate the service or request.

Note the mention of "partly because." There is another part to why one-way devices cannot perform interactive services, and it is the crux of OCAP. In other words, yes, one-way devices cannot perform interactive services in part because there is no upstream signal path. But it's also because the one-way devices lack a common software environment, which negotiators agreed would take a little longer to incorporate into the deal.

In that sense then, OCAP is poised to become "the industry's middleware." All of us who lived through the most recent interactive TV infatuation should have some understanding of what "middleware" is; as a refresher, and specific to OCAP, middleware is a way of assuring that cable interactive digital-video services can be deployed to every device and consumers can use the same equipment across different networks. In other words, cable's interactive services are nationally portable. OCAP is also designed to insure the integrity of the cable operator's network.

Right now, the OCAP group at Cable Television Laboratories Inc. is working with the software development community to tackle the software modules that will likely be needed in the earliest days of OCAP-based devices: the electronic program guide, and video-on-demand/on-demand applications. Although this software exists in today's digital-cable deployments, it is not yet "nationally portable" across vendors and hardware platforms.

As the conversations deepen and mature within the context of the plug-and-play agreement, and new types of consumer gadgets and cable services enter the pipeline, the work of OCAP also will deepen and mature. Right now, it matters to those of us who are neck-deep in it. Soon enough, I am hopeful that its fruits will extend the reach of content providers, broadband-network operators and consumer-electronics manufacturers.

If we all do it right, the ultimate beneficiary will be consumers, who can connect their cool new gadgets to cable's broadband spigot, and get cool new cable services, that work reliably.