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Rights, Implementation Issues Tax OCAP

Thorny talks over rights issues and implementation have caused some growing pains for the OpenCable Application Platform, cable's set-top box middleware initiative.

And those developments will have a clear effect on the industry's interactive-TV timetable, as well as Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s larger OpenCable initiative, of which OCAP is a key component.

The rights model for the OCAP specification has centered around a voluntary arrangement in which its developers — which include lead authors Microsoft Corp., Liberate Technologies and Sun Microsystems Inc. and contributors OpenTV Corp., Canal Plus S.A. and PowerTV Inc. — agree to contribute their intellectual property to a pool that would be offered royalty-free to the cable industry. The structure is similar to CableLabs' DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) program.

The OCAP licensing agreement was to be concluded June 30, but several of the companies took issue with the terms and balked at signing on. Both Microsoft and OpenTV have confirmed that they did not ink the accord.

"We're in the process of negotiating [the agreement] with them," said CableLabs president and CEO Richard Green. "We don't have an answer on what the rights pool will look like.

"The real issue here centers around how the rights pool will be managed," Green added. "We've asked them to offer them royalty-free to cable, and they have raised some discussions."

Ed Graczyk, director of marketing for the Microsoft TV platform, said his company couldn't sign the agreement, and is "in discussions with [CableLabs] to continue."

Though he avoided specifics, Graczyk said the software giant has issues with the open licensing of intellectual property and the test or certification procedures proposed.

"Our concerns boiled down to it being an open and equitable licensing" across the structure of the specfication, involving all players. Graczyk said the rights should also be licensed in a "non-discriminatory fashion."

Likewise, OpenTV is not currently making technical contributions to the OCAP specification, but is engaged in conversations about intellectual-property terms.

"There are a number of areas that are not clearly defined as of yet," said OpenTV vice president of strategic and product marketing Anup Murarka, who declined to elaborate.

Still, he added, "I'm confident we're going to get an agreement. … A number of MSOs want us in the process."

Green drew parallels between his rights conundrum and the issues that surround the Moving Picture Expert Group's MPEG-2 video standard. CableLabs helped the MPEG develop the spec, but the rights- holders said they didn't want to contribute their intellectual property royalty-free. Consequently, a company — MPEG-LA — was established to manage and administer the property rights for the group.

"There's two models at the end of the spectrum," said Green. One is an MPEG-LA model, the other a royalty-free pool.

The latter is the easier path, according to Green, because it would avoid the need to establish administrative structures for collecting and distributing royalties among rightsholders and for enforcing the rights.

Nonetheless, Green stressed that the OpenCable specification is finished and available to any manufacturer that signs a nondisclosure agreement and agrees not to print or publish it.

"The rights issues don't need to be resolved before products are built," Green said. But manufacturers using OCAP must deal with rightsholders, which makes the idea of a "one-stop shop" or pool desirable.

Not to be discounted in the OCAP rights discussion is the presence of two fierce rivals: Microsoft and Sun, who've jousted mightily in the personal-computer and server-software sectors. CableLabs had previously negotiated a licensing agreement with Sun for its Java software.

And even as the rights issue reaches a critical juncture, the actual implementation of OCAP has also been questioned, sparking behind-the-scenes discussions. At issue: Exactly how OCAP middleware will be used, which portions will be used, and the types of set-tops on which it would be deployed.

Middleware — the layer of software that resides between the operating system and the application — is crucial for establishing a common application-programming interface, or a common set of instructions that interactive applications and services can execute on the OpenCable platform.

The OCAP spec was largely finished in March, when CableLabs released it for comment, and was updated in June.

Essentially, OCAP consists of a presentation engine and an execution engine. As originally conceived, the execution engine was based on Sun's Java and Java Virtual Machine, while the presentation engine, co-authored by Microsoft Corp. and Liberate Technologies, is based on HTML and ECMAScript.

Privately, some industry technologists have expressed concern about deploying the full OCAP spec. Whispers are emanating about considerations for only deploying the execution engine, thereby leaving the presentation engine up to each operator.

Based on Sun's generous licensing agreement with the cable industry, this option could prove very attractive. But there's far from universal agreement about a revised or modified OCAP. Although talks are ongoing, Green said it's too soon to comment.

Cable operators have considered deploying interactive services on a variety of set-tops, with different levels of processing power and varying memory footprints.

Graczyk acknowledged a "need to accommodate [the OCAP] standard for more than just one kind of box." Instead of an execution-only implementation, however, Graczyk argued writing applications to the presentation layer is less costly, pointing out that there are more HTML developers than Java or C language developers.

Comcast Corp. chief software architect Jean-Pol Zundel sees no need for modifying the specification. He said a presentation and execution engine are both necessary, acknowledging that a full OCAP "may take a few years to implement."

"We're certainly going to deploy interactivity on the [Motorola DCT-]2000 long before we deploy on the [more powerful DCT-]5000," he added.