The Many Shades of IPTV
by Leslie Ellis // June 19 2006
By the looks of the recent GlobalComm show — one of two big annual gatherings for telephone industry people — the term “IPTV” is officially a synonym for the word “new.”
Witness: In the printed show guide, 59 companies were listed under an “IPTV” heading. Perhaps more confusingly, 32 companies were listed under “IP Video.” Eighteen companies straddled both categories. Most of them put the letters, which stand for “Internet Protocol Television,” front and center.
Yes, in a three-day wander of the show floor at Chicago’s McCormick place, in booths and in sessions, it became clear all over again that the definition of IPTV differs widely — even within the industry that gives the acronym its curious oomph.
For starters, an “IP Video Pavilion,” identified only by a giant banner hanging over a loose grouping of 10 x 20 foot booths, contained nine vendors touting everything from “voice quality measurement tools” to “converged service assurance solutions.”
But vendor positioning is one thing. Service provider intentions are quite another. Along those lines, here’s what a Verizon engineering staffer said, when asking during a panel session how his company defines IPTV: “We think IPTV is mostly video on demand. It’s not broadcast TV, not yet.”
That’s code for “we equate IPTV with switched services,” where “switch” and “VOD” are tacitly interchangeable. Generally speaking, VOD works by sending a stream out to a viewer only when requested. It isn’t a broadcast to all.
Makes sense, but it considerably narrows the scope of the acronym. IPTV just isn’t really a Verizon thing.
It is, however, an AT&T thing. And a Microsoft thing, and an Alcatel thing — to name two of AT&T’s larger suppliers, both very present at GlobalComm. As a group, they’re sowing the sizzle into IPTV.
Partly, AT&T’s cleave to IPTV is technical. Unlike Verizon, AT&T plans to squeeze every drop of broadband it can out of its digital subscriber lines — and since DSL is innately an Internet Protocol (IP) delivery mechanism, any video running over it is thus”IPTV.” And yes, it’s switched — but AT&T doesn’t stop at VOD to explain what it wants to do with its IPTV.
That’s why it was especially illuminating to drop in on the IPTV demonstrations in the (very crowded) Alcatel booth. If trade show demonstrations are any predictor of future service offerings, and if AT&T does what Alcatel’s booth actors showed (oh so cheerfully!), then here’s what AT&T has up its sleeve as competitive offerings.
First was a “what’s hot” application, which shows the top five shows being viewed by “the IPTV universe” at that moment in time. It works by monitoring “joins and leaves” of each subscriber, to each channel. Meaning, how many people jump onto a stream of a show, versus how many people tune away.
Another one involved remote babysitting, for lack of a better term. You’re out to dinner with your sweetie, but you’re worried about what your kids are watching on TV. You whip out your “mobile device,” inspect the tuner on the set-top at home, and see where your kids are visually parked.
If you don’t like it, send a text message: “Go to bed.” If that doesn’t work, turn the TV off entirely. (They didn’t say whether you could turn it off until you got home, or whether Junior could walk across the room and turn it back on.)
Of course, there was the whole fast-channel change thing. And video channel surfing, where a small, picture-in-picture box appears on the lower left corner of the active viewing screen, displaying, with video, what’s on, when you channel surf.
But those last two apps are “old,” as IPTV demos go.
Microsoft’s view of IPTV came during a breakout session, where Ed Graczyk — a rare constant in the company’s television team — gave a lengthy and cogent definition of what IPTV is and isn’t. What IPTV isn’t, he said, is MSN Video, Google video, or ABC.com streaming episodes of Desperate Housewives. Nor is it “low quality, best effort, small size video — that’s Internet video.”
Instead, IPTV is what lifts the television from its long-standing position as an independent, largely unconnected silo. Where the television brought the world into your living room, half a century ago, “we’re now on the cusp of where TV is about to bring your living room to the world,” Graczyk offered.
IPTV is different than “Internet video,” he said, because it is delivered over a managed network. “It’s not on the public Internet, where you can’t guarantee quality of service. It’s a competitive service, on a managed network.”
But my personal favorite among the wildly ranging IPTV definitions at GlobalComm sprang from an employee at one of the 59 listed IPTV-related companies. His definition of IPTV: “Well, clearly, it’s video over IPTV.”
This column originally appeared in the Technology section of Multichannel News.
What the Heck is QoS? Part 2 (Susie Riley, Doug Jones, Bob Cruickshank)
These two parts were filmed in 2006 at the SCTE Expo, and aired at the CTAM Summit. (Back in the days when the Expo was always in June, and CTAM in July.) In this segment, I check in with three QoS pros — Susie Riley, of Camient, Doug Jones, then with Big Band, and Bob Cruickshank, then with C-COR (now Arris) — to make the acronym more approachable for non-engineers.
Quote of the segment: “Quality of service is an amazing tool for marketers. Instead of taking 2 hours to download a movie, you can do it in 20 minutes. It’s a dream.”
Video courtesy The Cable Channel.
The Year of OCAP?
by Leslie Ellis // June 05 2006
Since it’s been north of two years since this column last delved into the OpenCable Applications Platform (OCAP), and since the cable majors intend to launch OCAP over the next two years, starting this October, it seems timely to dive back in.
A new rack of details emerged last week in a webcast hosted by CTAM. Full disclosure: I delivered a brief what’s what on the subject, but the real goods came from the other panelists: Joan Gillman, of Time Warner Cable, brought the cable view. Jonathan Bokor, of the Walt Disney Internet Group/ABC, delivered a “programmer’s wish list” for OCAP. Don Dulchinos, of CableLabs, moved the topic forward by describing some of the extensions scheduled to latch onto the specification — some of them by this fall.
In case you missed it, this week’s translation covers the highlights. For more, prowl CTAM’s web site for the archive.
To “level-set,” as tech people say, OCAP is a category of software known as “middleware.” It wants to sit above the little embedded operating system, and below the applications, in digital set-top boxes or cable-ready consumer electronics devices (HDTVs, to start). It’s nine years in development, but all signs point to sizeable rollouts in ’07 and ’08.
OCAP matters for program networks because it offers a way to cut multi-MSO deals for interactive stuff that lets viewers participate in shows, often in a way that impacts the results of the show — like voting along with “Dancing with the Stars.”
It matters to cable operators because it lets them normalize the dozens of makes and models of digital boxes in the field, each with different innards. By abstracting the many differences between boxes, new applications can go up more quickly, and with way less futzing.
What Cable Operators Want
The cable view on OCAP is this: It’ll go into newer, higher-end boxes, like those that do digital video recording and HDTV. For the legacy base, there’s the OCAP subset known as ETV, for Enhanced TV (see the 9/5/05 translation.)
Whenever someone starts talking about ETV, the term “EBIF” (pronounced “ee-biff”) isn’t far away. It’s another doozy of a tech term that stands for “Enhanced Binary Interchange Format.” That’s code for the code that makes interactive stuff work on legacy, resource-skinny boxes.
But what are the apps? Last week, Time Warner Cable launched a voting application with NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” with plans to extend the service into 12 other markets. It already offers a voting/polling application on NY1. So far, both applications are proprietary, but both are slated to be ETV- and OCAP-compliant.
Most of all, operators want more applications — especially two-way applications, because the dish guys can’t do two-way very easily.
What Programmers Want
Programmers wish differently. First, they want a heavier foot on the gas pedal. Faster OCAP launches, in more headends, to more set-tops and consumer electronics devices.
Secondly, they want ways to be proactive about ad-skipping, happening everywhere there’s a DVR. Specifically, they want to try out things like “telescoping.” That’s where you’re watching the Mini Cooper ad, and it’s of interest to you. You click (that’s the telescope) to watch a longer video about the vehicle. The clip is stored on a VOD server.
On the authoring side, program networks seek an “open source applications template,” presumably from the vendor community and blessed by CableLabs and its member company MSOs. The template is pre-certified and pre-tested to be good-to-go.
Over time, of course, programmers want to apply creative strokes that make their interactive efforts as irresistible as possible — but in the beginning, they want a way to write things quickly, with an assurance that they’ll work across MSO geographies and set-top landscapes.
Lastly, and perhaps most illuminating, is the desire by program networks for a central testing facility, to make sure their interactive efforts work. What’s illuminating about that desire is the void it uncovers. The technology is essentially ready. Headends are gearing up. New applications (not re-coded versions of the guide, etc.) are emerging, if slowly.
But nothing yet exists to assure operators that an OCAP app won’t bring anything to its knees, or to assure programmers that their application really will work on all available OCAP devices.
The Chicken and the Egg
In interactive TV circles, the “chicken and egg” expression often pops out. Why: Programmers don’t want to throw cash at anything interactive until they’re sure there’s a big enough box base to run it. And those operators with the big enough box base want applications, before they get in too deep.
There’s a difference this time around. Practically speaking, it’s what’s made OCAP such a dull topic until now: All the operator work, so far, is in re-coding existing applications, like the guide and the on-demand ordering system.
But the very fact that applications are being re-coded to run in an OCAP format shows some skin in the game. So does the work to get headends ready by this October, and on through 2008.
That’s why people are starting to say things like “this is the year of OCAP.” Practically speaking, this is probably the year of the start of OCAP. OCAP will be 10 when it gets its “year of.”
This column originally appeared in the Technology section of Multichannel News.