Rivals to Craft ITV Spec

Cable Television Laboratories Inc. last week chose Microsoft Corp., Liberate Technologies and Sun Microsystems Inc. as primary authors of the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), the middleware software specification for advanced digital set-top boxes and digital televisions.

The specification should level the playing field for those firms and other middleware vendors, and afford cable operators a chance to select from several different providers.

OCAP also should make it easier for software developers to jump into the interactive-television business without having to write code for multiple specifications.

Microsoft, Liberate and Sun, which are battling for cable customers, must now work together on a specification that CableLabs and the cable industry expect to have finished and ready for implementation by the end of the year.

According to CableLabs, OCAP will tie together two major middleware elements: an "Execution Engine" (EE), which provides a programmable environment, and a "Presentation Engine" (PE), which supports Web-browser capabilities.

Though OCAP is separate from the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) content standard, the PE portion of OCAP will support ATVEF as part of the specification's PE requirements, CableLabs said.

Sun, with its "Java TV" platform, will be the leading author of the EE element, while Liberate and Microsoft will collaborate on the PE piece.

Microsoft and Liberate have completed a first draft of their portion of the specification, CableLabs said.

Other middleware vendors will also have a say. CableLabs also selected Canal Plus Technologies, OpenTV Inc. and PowerTV Inc. as "key" OCAP contributors.

WorldGate Communications Inc., which announced its own "CableWare 2000" middleware product last week, said through a spokeswoman it also would be open to working with CableLabs on developing an industry-wide specification.

The OCAP interoperability specification will essentially serve as the software interoperability equivalent to cable modems and cable-modem-termination systems in the DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) arena, CableLabs CEO Richard Green said.

CableLabs plans to run a battery of tests on submitted middleware to determine whether it adheres to OCAP specifications.

In addition to the companies that were just selected to contribute to the middleware spec, 10 others responded to CableLabs' OpenCable software request for proposals: ACTV Inc., ATSC, Excite@Home Corp., Motorola Broadband Communications Sector, Hewlett-Packard Co., ICTV Inc., MoreCom Inc. (now part of Liberate), NDS Ltd., Virtual Modem and VXM.

When completed, the OCAP specification will become the middleware complement to OpenCable's removable, point-of-deployment (POD) hardware modules, which handle channel descrambling in set-tops sold at retail.

The cable industry has until 2005 to stop issuing set-tops with embedded security and channel features.

CableLabs just beat the FCC's July 1 deadline by certifying PODs from Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta.