Herewith, Key Updates on Middleware
by Leslie Ellis // June 28 2004
This week, thousands of software developers pile into San Francisco for JavaOne, the big annual rendezvous hosted by Sun Microsystems Inc. to impart the latest in code-stuffs.
To cable, JavaOne tends to occur in an outer orbit, mostly because the junction between cable people and Java coders is still young.
This year, though, there’s a milestone-ish cable angle: A contest, to be announced today (June 28), that will reward four Java innovators (with $1,000, plus an HDTV for the big winner) for cool stuff written for OCAP. OCAP stands for OpenCable Applications Platform, and lives under the roof of Cable Television Laboratories Inc. In short, it’s the software layer that allows applications to be portable across MSO boundaries and devices.
A potent handful of MSOs are supporting the Java-OCAP match: Advance/Newhouse Communications, Cablevision Systems Corp., Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable. Contestants in four categories have until Oct. 1 to turn in applications, built with tools provided by Vidiom Systems Inc.
JavaOne will also highlight Cox’s recent “OnRamp to OCAP” effort, which steers a pared-down version of Java at the gap between the “now” (deployed digital boxes that can’t do OCAP) and the “next” (OCAP-based devices, made by the traditional set-top suppliership, and by CE manufacturers.)
The Java developments make it a timely occasion to look again into “middleware.”
Back then, middleware was a shapeless buzzword. An entire supplier community spun around it. Each had a slightly different interpretation of its applicability. Confusion reigned.
What makes middleware confusing today is less the mixed meanings, and more the mixed implementations. Everybody seems to be taking a different path. If OCAP is the next, “my cap” is the now.
Plus, conversational curveballs often slide into middleware discussions.
It happens like this: You’re talking to someone about their migration strategy from today’s fielded boxes, to tomorrow’s OCAP boxes. Suddenly, you realize that he’s talking about the guide. It’s not always an easy string of dots to connect. Ultimately, it comes down to priorities, and resource allocation. People who segue from middleware talk to guide talk identify the navigational systems, used by consumers, as job one. Way more viewing options are coming, they figure. Better make it easy for people to discover and use them.
After all, while remixing existing applications on the “now” boxes to run on the “next” boxes alleviates lots of headaches, it’s not all that sexy. It means recoding stuff that already works — which today consists mostly of the guide and the video-on-demand client.
Scorecard of Players
Here’s a quick snapshot of who’s doing what, among some of the majors, as a sort of “interpretive translation” of today’s middleware scene.
There’s Cox, with its “OnRamp to OCAP.” Most of the major MSOs signed on to support it. They talk about it in that polite way that tacitly says “give it a go, we won’t interfere, hope it works, best of luck.”
Cox’s work hews directly to its installed base of digital set-tops, a 50-50 mix of versions made by Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. By expunging the OCAP parts they can’t use on legacy boxes — support for CableCARDS, the monitor app, built-in cable modems, or DVRs — they get a product that does the job, across both suppliers and all boxes.
The big bonus: Applications running on OnRamp will run on OCAP, which yields a consistent “look and feel” to all Cox customers.
Then there’s Time Warner Cable, with its ongoing Vidiom relationship for OCAP software.
Part of the plan, parsed out in various public briefings over the last few months, is to ready a licensable OCAP implementation, just to get things moving.
The licenses come from Time Warner or Vidiom.
Another part of the plan shifts all fielded boxes off existing software — “SARA,” for “Scientific Atlanta Resident App,” and “Passport,” the guide made by Pioneer — toward a new, OCAP-based “digital navigator.”
Most of Time Warner’s work is happening in the Denver area, with the MystroTV brain trust. Handily, a Vidiom outpost is a few miles up the Boulder highway.
And there’s Comcast, with fresh ink on a licensing deal for 5 million copies of Microsoft’s TV Foundation.
Conversations continue with Vidiom (and others) for an OCAP stack. (“Stack” is software speak for how instructions are prioritized within a program.)
But wait, aren’t Microsoft and Sun enemies?
Yes, but, from a “do what the (MSO) customer wants” perspective, there’s hope. Microsoft and Sun recently settled their legal differences.
That makes it … less unthinkable … to envision Microsoft doing a Java implementation.
Note: Under the same chain of Comcast command, there’s the cauldron of activities inside “GuideWorks,” the joint venture Comcast created with TVGuide last year. The staff-up there is sizeable, and, as such, GuideWorks can’t be ignored as a major software initiative.
Three Different Paths
Three big companies, three different “now” paths. (And “now” includes every box installed until “next,” which is OCAP boxes. Translation: Add at least a year’s worth of “more now.”)
Increasingly, though, unanimity prevails on the “next.” Cox is adamant that OnRamp is only for pre-OCAP devices, and is equally committed to OCAP on future devices. Comcast and Time Warner are also more and more allied around OCAP.
A finger to the wind indicates heavy action for OCAP, starting at this year’s JavaOne. As the year progresses, watch for an adherence to OCAP devices that mirrors the early cable modem purchasing days, when operators stood in unity to not buy proprietary gear.
This brings us back to why such a seemingly trifling thing, like a contest, could look like a notable milestone. Five years ago, only the technology community hung out at the Consumer Electronics Show. Now, hordes of cable people go.
What they see is mostly hardware gadgetry.
The next wave is software and applications, to run on that hardware. Java is the anchor of OnRamp and OCAP; JavaOne is the place where that creative talent gathers. If nothing else, it looks like it’ll be a place to view new interactive stuff — that runs on everything of the “next.”
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
18 Days to CableCARD: How Many?
by Leslie Ellis // June 14 2004
In 18 days — on the Thursday fronting the long weekend that is July 4 — cable providers face a deadline: Their larders must be stocked with enough removable security cards to satisfy all customers who request them.
And after a thorny year of preparation, a final and pressing question remains. How many cards is that, exactly? (Or even roughly?)
The answer matters for several reasons: One, there’s a $75-ish cost tacked to each cable security card. This isn’t like knowing how many boxes to roll out node-by-node. It depends, nearly entirely, on consumer demand.
Two, makers of the cards (Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.) need to know how many to make, now and later. Ordering gaps make for production-line slowdowns.
Three, running out of cards could bring bad mojo to the industry: Regulatory asks greeted with a puckered brow; business discussions stunted.
The industrial food chain that accompanies this deadline — which links cable to consumer-electronics and retail leaders — is just too young to shoulder too much trouble.
A quick review: The cards, handily renamed “CableCARD” (from “point-of-deployment” or POD) last year, are for people who walk into a store, walk out with a digital cable-ready device (mostly HDTVs to start), and decide they want a premium/scrambled video service from their local cable operator.
It’s precisely that point-of-sale decision that blows such a haze of perplexity into the “how many” math.
Will Consumer Bob shell out $200 to $300 more (less with time) to buy the TV with the built-in cable descrambler? Is there a TV for sale right next to it, identical but for the lack of CableCARD slot — and the extra $200 to $300 outlay?
And if Bob buys the digital-cable ready (“DCR”) TV, will he also buy the premium digital cable video package?
In short, nobody knows. Lots of people worry about why people won’t want the sets — insert every flavor of “they’re not two-way” here. But the truth is, nobody really knows if consumer demand for digital cable ready TVs will run large, medium, or small.
CE Momentum Seen
What’s known is this: CE manufacturers are putting some pretty big numbers out there. Last month, the Consumer Electronics Association notified Cable Television Laboratories Inc. (partially via press release) to expect 500,000 CableCARD TVs in stores by around Labor Day; 1 million by the December shopping season.
Liar’s poker, or humble facts? (Before answering, imagine yourself in a room, pointy elbow to pointy elbow with your meanest competitors, sharing sales forecasts.)
The individual announcements from the CE community appear to support a steady rise in digital cable ready devices. Among those readying DTVs with built-in CableCARD receptacles: Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Pioneer, Samsung, Sony, Thomson, Toshiba.
All express their plans in terms of how many TV models will include CableCARD slots. Sony says a dozen, for example. Ditto for Hitachi. Nine for Samsung; 10 for Toshiba; and on and on. It’s not all that difficult to imagine the CableCARD slot becoming as much a part of a digital TV as the power cord.
For cable, the hard part remains figuring out how many CableCARDs to order.
Lacking anything resembling a fact about consumer demand, the “how many” math varies, largely by opinion. Conservative thinkers say “overstock.” Skeptics say “overstock practically,” applying a larger range of filters, which trims the number.
A filter example: Of the million “host” devices in stores by the holidays, how many will be purchased by cable customers? Of those, how many sets will be activated for premium services?
Maybe half are bought by cable customers, and 10% buy premium services. The million available units tumbles to 50,000 needing security cards. And that’s without spreading the million units over multiple MSOs, with different subscriber counts and geographic footprints.
Either way — conservatively or skeptically — nobody will really know what retailers can do with digital cable-ready devices, until they do it.
All This For What?
This whole topic will likely be a rich source of hallway talk at this week’s SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Orlando, Fla. Across the industry, cable system employees of all stripes spent the past year mobilizing toward a wholly uncertain outcome.
It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable preparation. Tons of work. Special task forces. (But wait, don’t forget your regular job.)
Indeed, getting ready for CableCARDs tapped into multiple departments: Device and customer provisioning, billing, inventory/warehouse management, public relations, business development, customer service and technology.
To translate, in order: How are devices and services electronically verified/initiated? How are CableCARD services identified to billing systems? How do cards flow from warehouses to systems, quickly and efficiently? How are retailers motivated and informed about the services that run (and don’t run) on CableCARD devices? How do customer-service reps know to accept and resolve customer questions? How do you make the cards work?
The hardest of the technically hard work is done. Headends are upgraded. Task forces are standing by to install the early CableCARDs, and to field card-related customer service calls.
Satisfying the first few Customer Bobs with new digital TVs will likely be manageable, if only because everybody’s on “high alert.” Plus, it’s a cold start.
It’s a heavy volume of CableCARD devices, coupled with the endlessness of software upgrades, that will season the landscape for future cable generations.
For now: Best not to run out.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.