Technology ’04-Play: OCAP Middleware
by Leslie Ellis // December 15 2003
This being the last “translation” of the year, it seems useful to revisit something that looks like a vigorous technology for 2004.
The something is OCAP, which is short for “OpenCable Applications Platform.” It re-entered the industrial lexicon (technologists have been at it since 1997) at the recent Western Show, when CEOs Brian Roberts and Glenn Britt (of Comcast and Time Warner, respectively) highlighted its relevance during an opening general session.
Also at Western, a Colorado-based entity, Vidiom Systems, delivered a useful, two-hour OCAP tutorial. (If you missed it, fear not: The company is planning more seminars in 2004.) And, on the floor, Vidiom finally emerged from the cone of silence to show its work with Time Warner Cable. The demo involved an OCAP-based navigational system (the new way of saying “the guide.”)
Nothing drives innovation quite so much as necessity. Without a common software environment, like OCAP, it’ll be difficult to go much further on the two-way part of the Plug & Play agreement.
OCAP is “middleware” software – a dubious distinction, to be sure. Few terms take the brain so immediately to bewilderment. In part, that’s because middleware is not specific to this industry, its set-top boxes, or anything else.
Example: In the December/January issue of MIT Technology Review, IBM Corp. took out four full page ads, all dedicated to middleware. Each showed photos of various everyday life/work scenarios: The information-exchange part of a fender bender; the administrivia of getting a mortgage. All ran under the same heading: “Middleware is everywhere: Can you see it?”
The fender bender photo shows people hunkered over their handheld gadgets. A policeman verifies insurance coverage. Nearby, someone files an electronic claim. A third person gets a repair estimate, and a fourth orders a replacement bumper. Accident Girl gets notification of settlement. All on the spot: Wreck, settle, same day.
The point of the picture is to show that “middleware” is invisibly everywhere. It’s the unseen software glue that runs on all sorts of consumer and business gizmos. It allows them to talk understandably to each other, so that specific actions can occur electronically.
OCAP’s intent is to do that for cable entertainment on cable-ready devices, be they set-tops or cable-ready consumer gadgets. It’s happening in distinct phases. OpenCable and the CableCARD slot/card paved the way for set-tops and cable-ready devices sold at retail – step one. OCAP goes a step further, to make portable the services that run on those devices.
OCAP’s Bare Minimums
Which brings us to the translation: What is OCAP, these days?
OCAP is a software layer. It sits above an incumbent operating system (PowerTV for Scientific-Atlanta; VxWorks or VRTX for Motorola), and below the applications (like the guide, or on-demand selections, or clickable things that come with a specific TV program).
For OCAP 1.0 to run much beyond video, it needs an 8×16 Megabyte memory footprint (where the “8” is flash memory, and the “16” is dynamic random access memory, or DRAM). In processing oomph, it needs at least a 130 MHz processor, but faster is better.
Much of the installed base falls below the bare minimum, which makes OCAP 1.0 a thing for new, medium to high-end set-tops and consumer devices.
The first version of the specification – OCAP 1.0 – includes three main things.
First is a Java Virtual Machine, or “JVM,” translated in the Nov. 19, 2001 edition. The purpose of a JVM is to “unfold and run” interactive applications. Technologists also call this the “executable engine.”
Second is a set of Java “packages”, which is Java-speak for the software executables which enable the application program interfaces, or APIs. APIs are the programming calls available to developers when creating applications – like the work shown by Vidiom.
Lastly, OCAP 1.0 needs a mechanism for applying business policies. Some, like Vidiom, call this “the monitor application” (translated in the Sept. 2, 2002 edition), and have built standalone and suite-type versions of the code. Others wonder if the business policy stuff couldn’t be handled by the guide, as part of its background processing. The matter is unresolved.
Wherever and however it winds up, a monitor needs to be there to allocate resources, handle software downloads, and manage the many details of incoming applications.
Some applications are “bound,” for example, meaning that they come in via a specific program network. (Comcast likes to use the example of “voting someone off the island.”)
Other applications are “unbound,” meaning they have no specific correlation to a TV show in progress. The guide is an example, as is VOD selection, or any of the “walled garden” applications of the recent interactive TV past.
That’s the current events of OCAP. It may not rock worlds in 2004, but at the least it’ll start to take shape as a way to bind cable services into consumer products.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
A Nostalgic Stroll Through Western Shows Past
by Leslie Ellis // December 01 2003
For technology people, the status of this week as the marker for the last Western Show is bittersweet.
The bitter is the void that’s created, just as with any unfortunate parting. The Western Show is (was) a reliably active technology event. Saying goodbye to it doesn’t mean technology will stagnate, because technology doesn’t know how to stagnate.
But it does mean we, as an industry, will be exposed to industry-specific technology advances differently next December, and the next December, and so on.
The sweet is the recognition that many of us can have our Thanksgivings back. For lots of people – conference organizers, exhibitors, trade press – getting ready for Western involves a crazy level of detail, similar to planning for a wedding. Except, in this case, the wedding is wedged between two major holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Even the bravest party-planner would call that nuts.
Most won’t miss the timing intensity of the Western Show. But technology hounds will miss its payoff: A last, good shot of technology news and actions, to end the year.
Because part of a technology writer’s job is to not forget the past, this week’s column remembers some of the “firsts and notables” of previous Western Shows.
Big Things Happened
The obvious and most recounted Western Show biggie was John Malone’s promise of “500 channels,” in 1992. The Tele-Communications Inc. chief uttered the prediction in the context of digital video compression, but his words were taken literally, with people wondering if they’d someday actually channel surf past channel 429, 430, 431.
Then there was the big Imedia Corp. craze, in 1995, when Malone wandered through the CableLabs’ CableNET area, finding a little startup with big plans for 24-to-1 video compression per 6 MHz channel. A deal was done on the show floor, and showed up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal a week later.
And, in 1997, Malone orchestrated a $4.5 bil. group order for 25 mil. digital set-top boxes, a move other MSO technologists still remember as “the blue light special.”
The quest for cable modem interoperability, later named “DOCSIS,” was born at the 1996 Western Show, when CableLabs gathered muckety-muck cable technologists in a briefing room to discuss the idea.
A year later, Cisco Systems debuted its “universal broadband router,” or “uBR.” It’s in the “big” category because it quickly gained massive market share (upwards of 80%) as the headend component used by MSOs offering broadband Internet service.
And let’s not forget Microsoft, which isn’t a new entry to cable headlines. In 1994, Microsoft made front page Western Show news, luring six more cable operators into its “Insight Architect” program for interactive television.
Also in 1994, Cablevision Systems said it would deploy 20,000 digital, VOD-capable set-tops made by AT&T by the end of the following year.
Big because it happened and it works, Cox in 1994 gathered reporters to talk tech about its new “ring in ring” fiber deployment strategy, which dramatically reduced outages and increased network “up time.”
Bad Things Happened
More recently, cable operators involved in Excite@Home sat on pins and needles at the 2001 Western Show, awaiting a ruling from U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Thomas Carlson. By lunchtime, Carlson ruled to allow the broadband Internet provider to terminate its contracts with its MSO partners, which created a crazy maelstrom of cutover activities in the following weeks.
In 1996, the biggest seller in Anaheim was raingear. The convention center’s basement flooded. Tele-Communications Inc. had just laid off a pile of Denver-based workers. The mood across the street from “the happiest place on Earth” was decidedly dampened.
Funny Things Happened
Ted Turner, ever the quip machine, showed up strong at several Western Shows. Perhaps his most memorable antic came in 1995, when he held up clenched fists and made a sustained meanie-face, saying “I’m looking forward to squishing Rupert [Murdoch] like a bug.”
Intel, still active in the cable modem market in 1995, distributed press kits that included a CD. Trouble was, the CD disabled reporters’ PCs. Staffers quickly posted signs in the press room, warning that the CD “will seriously damage your computer system.” Oops.
And, TCI honcho Leo Hindery delivered his famously weird “spinning triangles” remark at the 1997 Western Show. Describing a triangle of benefits aimed at cable customers, he began drawing tight circles in the air with his index finger, and said that the triangle was about to start spinning, faster and faster, and customers would go through it – “into a magical world.”
Well, it’s funny now: At the 1987 Western Show, show planners were ebullient about attendance. “We’re bursting at the seams,” said a CCTA organizer — of the 5,000 expected attendees.
Also funny in hindsight: In 1980, Robert “Terry” Holt, who worked for a bucket truck company called Mobile Lift Inc., came up with a series of folk songs for cable. One, “The Tech’s Hymn,” spun a tale of a lineman’s heaven.
Zenith came out that same year with a programmable VCR – with a suggested retail price of $1,350.
Odd Things Happened
In 1995, just as CableLabs was mobilizing the cable modem interoperability work that would later become DOCSIS, four hardware vendors drew their own interoperability circle. Hewlett-Packard, Intel, AT&T Network Systems, and Hybrid Network Technologies allied under a “Broadband Link Team” shingle (and yes, sandwich metaphors were flying). They promised a full, written specification within a month.
Few technologists will forget a similarly doomed effort, one year later: When Jim Phillips, a senior exec at Motorola Corp. (before it bought General Instrument), worked diligently to make his cable modems the de facto standard.
In 1998, Sony Corp. plunked down $187.5 mil. to get closer to General Instrument, taking a 5% stock stake. Not to be outdone, rival Scientific-Atlanta signed a letter of intent with Microsoft to figure out how to put WinCE and WebTV on S-A’s set-tops. Neither effort produced much more than headlines.
In that same year, a Forrester Research report predicted that seven of 28 program networks would make 80% of their content interactive by 2001. Uh-huh.
In 1994, big-name companies including AT&T, IBM, Northern Telecom and H-P all stated intents to build and sell digital set-top boxes. None went mainstream.
Familiar Things Happened
From the “Some Things Never Change” Department, two entries. First was the yellow badges worn by Western Show attendees in 1998, that read: “Digital Must Carry: Unfair, Unconstitutional, Un-American.”
And, in 1997, a Western Show headline touted: “Ops Divided on OpenCable Initiatives.”
As a sign of the times in the ’80s, the 1980 Western Show served as a backdrop for the franchising plans of nearby Santa Ana, Calif., with 65,000 homes. Nine companies were vying for the honor: TelePrompter Cable TV, Storer, Six Star Nielson Cablevision, Santa Ana Cablevision, Cross Country Cable Ltd., Colony Cablevision, California Cablesystems, United Cable Television, and American Television and Communications (ATC.)
At the 1987 Western Show, HBO delivered the results of its research into HDTV. The findings: 70% of premium, 41% of basic, and 33% of non-cable subscribers would be willing to pay more for HDTV programming.
Also at that show, HBO debuted a videotape titled “The Cable TV/VCR Hook-Up Guide.” The hour-long tape included a coupon for a $10 rebate on HBO or Cinemax subscriptions.
And, QUBE aficionados convened for a 10-year reunion at the 1987 Western Show – the service originally launched on December 1, 1977.
What Happens Now?
A random and very unscientific poll of technologists, conducted in preparation for this column, shows a strong sentiment for technology events that bookend the year. Put another way, most techies steadfastly believe there is room for multiple cable tech events each year.
The reasoning: Technology changes. Quickly. Being innovative means at least trying to make sense of it.
There is good news amid the bummer of the Western Show’s retirement. The always strong CableNET, which began in 1993 with a small group of vendors with gigantic wares, grew into a truly useful one-stop-shop for new technologies at Western. It will move to the annual NCTA Show – so that’s good.
Maybe something will emerge to fill the end-of-year tech void created by the last Western Show. Or, maybe not. Maybe the industry will shift its year-end tech appetite by one month, to the Consumer Electronics Show, which always happens in early January. The SCTE’s Emerging Technology event always happens in January, too – so that’s also good.
If nothing else, people like me will have fewer and fewer reasons to send Christmas cards out in January.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.