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Q&A: Microsoft’s Jim Baldwin

Worldwide Microsoft has become the leading provider of IPTV services to some of the world’s largest telcos, including AT&T in the United States. Jim Baldwin, senior director of engineering, at Microsoft Mediaroom talks about some of the advantages that IPTV offers the telcos in the race to add more HD content. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What have you been doing with Microsoft Mediaroom to make it easier for operators to add more HD content and to make the user HD experience better?

A: I was one of the founders of the Mediaroom project when it was started back in 2002 and from the outset we imagined HD as a critical component of the system.

At the time, we were very much on the cutting edge in that respect. There just weren’t that many HD-capable set-top boxes with chips available at the time.

A project like this also need modern compression but when we started this project H.264 hadn’t been imagined.

We needed to find low-cost silicon to that could be used for set-top boxes and a chip that could support a variety of formats MPEG-2, H.264, VC-1 and full high-definition plus.

The reason for that is if you are watching a live channel, there will be a picture in the picture of the next channel. We need to have enough decode performance that you could have a simultaneous HD stream and one SD stream on top of that.

Part of that capability comes from the fact that we don’t have tuners in the IPTV system.

In a typical cable or satellite system you get one stream per tuner, so they always put in more tuners so they can record more things at once. But in our systems it is not tuners it is just bandwidth. The tuner is a virtual concept; it is just a function of the network rather than being a specific function of the client.

So we took advantage of that to make a very flexible system that could decode an arbitrary number of streams. The total decode would be divided up among those arbitrary number of streams.

What that means for HD is that it gives you an amazing amount of content choices. Because you don’t have the limitations of hardware tuners -- the tuning function is basically left on the core backbones of the operator’s network.

With this system though there is almost no cost to getting channel encoded and added to the channel list.

And the same is true in for on demand. The cost is so low now to serve content that we can go as far down that long-tail curve as you want to go. Storage is so cheap that you can afford to have a vast library of available.

And adding HD is not a problem. It is just content that is being streamed at a higher bit rate over the network. Q: How fast do you see operators moving to MPEG-4? Do the telcos have an advantage here because they don’t have a lot of legacy MPEG-2 set-top boxes?

A: The telcos have a great opportunity to start from scratch. AT&T for example, is 100% H.264.

Cable and satellite, however, have a migration process to go through to get to the point where they can take advantage of H.264. I see satellite moving more quickly. It is costing them but they are sending new boxes. I think DirecTV is ready to make the switch and stop MPEG-2 at least for high-def channels.

You’ll see it happening first for high-def. It is a premium service so they can afford to do it but I think it is a longer proposition for them to do it with all the channels.

So the main differentiator is that AT&T can start from scratch and do something new very easily.

In the transition phase, the telcos are also in better position to have multiple version of a channel. Of course, you can do that with any system but because of the band-plant it is harder for a provider [that is using a broadcast architecture rather than IPTV] to have coexisting channels involved in old and new codec formats.

With IP, there is no extra network cost to have multiple versions of channels being sourced and that makes it easier to make the transition and support multiple formats.

Q: What about converged services and ability to move HD content around the home and from other devises onto the TV? How fast do you see those networks developing?

A: Our system supports something we call DVR anywhere. What that means is that a typical home could have any number of set-top boxes and they would all have DVR services as long as one of those boxes has a hard drive.

So we are already shipping content around the home because we’ve virtualized the notion of DVR storage and recording and playback.

The interesting thing about that is what it means for the telcos. When telcos looked at process of doing television one of the problems was that with a DSL system you have to terminate in one place. That is unlike cable where you have coax going into the house and you can split it as many times as you need to get cable to all the televisions.

So the telcos had to come up with some solution to get the signal from one point in the home to all the televisions and that necessarily means a home network.

Home networks are really something that only techie people do. Getting a router and a switch and hub and then plugging it into a computer or multiple devises is not something everyone is accustomed to do.

AT&T had to tackle the problem of setting up a home network. There is a little extra cost of doing this because it requires extra hardware and it takes a little extra technical help to get it set up. So there is a tax on creating a home network for everyone but when they install the service, they leave the home with a fully featured home network capable of shipping video around the house.

So, we took advantage of that to create a cool idea, this DVR anywhere.

At the same time, the PC is on the network as well. So you can now do things like home media sharing, where you can share photos and music and other content over the whole network.

We are starting to exploit the whole idea of connectedness and this is a common theme with Mediaroom. The TV is finally connected and we have some really interesting connected entertainment scenarios.