Translation Please: On EBIF And Unbound Apps

Maybe you're suddenly finding yourself in conversations containing “EBIF.” Maybe you're constantly there. Either way, this week's translation aims to clarify a new twist: EBIF and unbound applications.

“Unbound EBIF” means the ability to put an interactive application on a huge number of digital-cable boxes — which keeps working, even if people change channels while it's running.

Nomenclature background: In the language of EBIF, an interactive application is either “bound” or “unbound.” Bound means it rides shotgun with what people are watching — but it doesn't persist across channels. Unbound means it exists as a button on the remote, or a menu on the screen. Change channels, it's still there.

EBIF stands for “Enhanced Binary Interchange Format,” which is tech-speak for what makes an interactive application work on just about every digital cable set-top out there — and let's not forget Verizon Communications's 4 million-plus boxes.

So far, the EBIF spec doesn't support unbound applications. Chances are high that it will, but it doesn't now.

Rewind to 2006. Remember the Rupert Murdoch “red button,” so popular with BSkyB's U.K. satellite-TV subscribers? The fear: What if that red button bounced across the Atlantic, to DirecTV?

Ramming Speed!

That's when CableLabs, at the behest of its MSO members, fast-tracked a standardized way to do bound apps on the boxes already in people's homes. Hello, EBIF.

None of this should suggest that unbound applications aren't already happening in EBIF environments. They are. They'll be all over the Cable Show next week. Caller ID on TV is an unbound app, as are yellow pages on TV, and personalized TV, and many others.

Nor is it unusual for variations to occur, as more vendors build more products. As a general rule, technical specifications leave lots of room for interpretation. That interpretive elbow room is a chief ingredient of innovation. It can yield proprietary systems.

Proprietary systems prefer to be proprietary — at least until they get deployed widely enough to become a de facto standard. (Think “it's good to be king.”)

The current version of the EBIF spec is I04. (The “I” stands for “issued,” so, issued version 04.) An I05 is in the works.

Until I05, and as you find yourself in even more EBIF conversations next week, remember: If you see an unbound or otherwise interactive application that isn't correlated with the show or ad it's sitting upon, and you're told it is EBIF-compliant — you know better.

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