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Plug-and-play is on the way

Plug-and-play" digital TV sets that work with cable but without the need for a set-top box are expected to hit the market next year, as a string of manufacturers in coming weeks pen licensing deals with the cable industry.

On Oct. 17, Panasonic announced it had signed on to CableLabs' "pod-host" interface license, which allows use of technology making TV sets' basic channel-surfing functions compatible with cable-system security measures. Samsung is next in line to sign on to the license, according to sources, with Phillips, Thompson and Sharp expected to follow.

Panasonic was the first manufacturer of consumer equipment to sign the license, which is administered by the cable industry's technology-development arm. Previously, only set-top–box suppliers Scientific-Atlanta, Motorola and Pace had signed on.

Agreement has become possible because the two sides are putting off negotiation of the most contentious issues: copy-protection measures and interactive-TV specifications.

"To get product to market as quickly as possible, we restricted the scope of the license," said Paul Liao, chief technical officer for Panasonic's U.S. operation.

Consequently, sets manufactured under the current spate of deals will differ from traditional TV sets only in their sharp pictures and multicasting capabilities. None of the sets will have outputs necessary for making digital copies, but outputs for analog VCRs will be allowed.

Manufacturers have resisted signing agreements during the past four years, complaining that copy-protection measures required by the cable industry infringed on home-recording rights. Set makers and cable-industry officials credited Congress and the FCC with pressuring them to get at least bare-bones plug-and-play sets to market. The sets are deemed necessary to drive adoption of digital because 70% of homes subscribe to cable and roughly half of them don't use set-top boxes.

Additionally, CableLabs and the broadcast industry's Advanced Television Systems Committee announced last week that they are trying to make compatible their separate interactive television standards, the Open Cable Applications Platform and the Digital Application Software Environment.