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The Tech Master

Mike LaJoie, Chief Technology Officer, Time Warner Cable

Vanguard Award for Science & Technology

In technology as in art, success and failure are fleeting concepts. Creations that might be dismissed in one era are often hailed as master strokes in the next. That familiar dynamic may help explain why Mike LaJoie, chief technology officer at Time Warner Cable, is getting the prestigious Vanguard award for his contribution to the technological development of the cable industry.

During his career at Time Warner, LaJoie has done much to merit this award, spearheading the operator's rollout of video-on-demand, high-speed data, DVRs, HD programming and interactive-TV services. In the last year alone, Time Warner Cable boosted its phone service from 220,000 subscribers to over 1 million.

In announcing LaJoie's Vanguard Award, however, the NCTA specifically referred to his work on the Full Service Network (FSN), an ambitious attempt by Time Warner to develop and test an advanced interactive cable system in Orlando, Fla., in the mid 1990s.

There is little doubt that FSN offered a wide array of groundbreaking services at that time, including on-demand movies, shopping and interactive games. But, LaJoie acknowledges, these new services were viewed by many as an expensive failure because they could never be economically rolled out beyond the 4,000 test homes. “With all the hype,” he says, “I don't think we got across just how difficult it was at the time to offer those services.”

For starters, Time Warner had to create or convert much of the digital content. The set-top boxes cost more than $5,000 apiece, and it took a whole room of servers, each one the size of a refrigerator, to supply on-demand and interactive programming for only 4,000 people.

“Today, you could put all the storage capacity of those servers into one tower PC,” LaJoie notes. And today's advanced set-top boxes, which are much more powerful, cost well under $500.

Still, the experiment helped pave the way for the rollout of advanced digital services by Time Warner and other operators.

“All the core technologies were available on FSN,” LaJoie says. “I don't think the industry would be where it is today with digital cable, VOD, high-speed data and other advanced services if weren't for FSN. It showed us how to build the architecture for what we are doing today.”

As executive VP of Time Warner Interactive Group, LaJoie oversaw a group that worked with outside vendors to develop much of the software and hardware for FSN. But he stresses that a number of other people played very important roles in the creation of the system, and he credits Time Warner with having the vision to undertake such an experiment.

“This has always been a company that has been willing to take risks and reward entrepreneurial spirit,” LaJoie says. “This company creates an environment where someone who is a self-starter is provided an opportunity to build some interesting stuff.”

A self-starter who likes to build interesting stuff is a pretty good description of LaJoie. “I've always been interested in anything that buzzed or beeped,” he says. “I was taking apart clocks, motorcycles and cars ever since I was a kid.”

During college, he supported himself by designing and repairing equipment for manufacturers, such as Paper Mate. In 1976, he began working as a stock broker, but the launch of the first personal computers would soon draw him back into the tech industry.

Fascinated by Apple computers, he quit the securities industry in 1981 and taught himself everything he could about the emerging technologies. Then, he opened up his own retail computer store and began offering consulting services in developing software.

In the mid 1980s, he began doing consulting work for Warner Music on interactive applications for CD ROMs. In 1992, he began working with Time Warner Cable as a consultant and, in 1994, moved in-house as executive VP of Time Warner Interactive Group, where his team played a key role in developing FSN.

By 1996, however, Time Warner began cutting back on its investment in interactive services, and LaJoie moved over to the Time Warner Cable division. After being involved in some early experiments with VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), he was named VP of corporate development in 1998, and that same year, his team began rolling out the VOD services that had been tested through FSN.

In 2002, he was named executive VP of advanced technology, putting him in charge of rolling out all the company's advanced services, including VOD, HD TV and DVRs. Those successful rollouts earned him another promotion in 2004, when he moved to his current position.

“The last six or seven years have been very busy,” LaJoie says, and the pace of technological change is not likely to slow anytime soon. In 2006, he notes, Time Warner Cable will be focusing on expanding its phone services, adding new on-demand comment, developing new interactive-TV features, and expanding the footprint of its Start Over application, which allows users to restart programs from the finish.

The application, which was deployed in 2005 in Columbia, S.C., has already proved a hit with consumers. Says LaJoie, “More than 70% of the digital subscribers are using the feature an average of nine times a month.”