TWC Taps Esmertec for Software to Build Set-Top Apps

A new batch of software poised to enter the cable industry, Java virtual machines (JVMs), will help cable operators launch interactive TV services.

The first company to make inroads is Esmertec, a Zurich, Switzerland-based firm known for its JVM software that allows wireless telephone providers to create sleek graphical applications for low-end phones.

The same general principle is at work on the set-top side, said Alain Blancquart, chief executive officer of Esmertec. "It's based on compiling technology that is small and efficient and resides on the system itself," he said. "We use this software for fulfilling Java needs in the wireless telco market, and we can use the same technology in different worlds."

Last month, Esmertec announced that Time Warner Cable signed a deal to use Esmertec's Java virtual machine in its OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) implementations. Esmertec's software will be integrated with Vidiom Systems' OCAP software in TWC applications.

Esmertec was formed in 1999, and it employs 120 people in nine countries, Blancquart said. In the United States, it has offices in Burlington, Mass., and Silicon Valley.

It's backed by several venture capital companies and generated $25 million in revenues last year.

In the wireless space, Esmertec created a paradigm that offered Java-based applications on any kind of mobile phone, Blancquart explained. Applications could run on processors as low as 13 megahertz.

"The principle is, when the application is downloaded, we compile that on the device," he said. "The application becomes a native application. It runs as an embedded application. We can accelerate that by five to 15 times. Any kind of current Java application on a high-end phone runs efficiently on a low-end device," he said, such as games or business applications.

Blancquart described the TWC deal as a long-term contract. "We reside on the set-top box," he said. TWC is looking at providing OCAP applications on Scientific-Atlanta's Explorer 3250 set-top box, and later on the Explorer 8000 series, he said.

"All the applications are graphic intensive, like 3D graphics," he said. "We're looking to get the same quality as in the dedicated gaming box. This is where the revenue will be driven from."

"We've started discussions with other manufacturers and cable MSOs," Blancquart said. "This gives us a real opening into this market."

Blancquart envisions the day when the same applications can be shared across a host of devices, including phones, PDAs, TVs and PCs. "That's the big future of all of this, which is not far away."