ANAHEIM, Calif. With standards still in flux, set-top and semiconductor makers in the United States and Europe are being left largely to their own devices in the drive to define a feature-rich, reliable "super set-top" box for next-generation TV. Chip and system vendors face a tough balancing act: They must design their platforms flexibly enough to accommodate evolving specifications for the U.S. cable industry while also ensuring that the same platform complies with individual set-top requirements from potential European customers. On top of all that, they must keep an eye on the price tag.
While the U.S. cable industry interoperability initiative OpenCable has yet to nail down the final written technical specs that spell out such requirements, European companies are forging ahead, promising advances in software and hardware platform designs through Europe's DVB Project and its Multimedia Home Platform. Through DVB, "Europeans are definitely taking further steps by setting much more detailed specifications, including the API-level standardization," said Lambinet.
OpenCable officials said they prefer to set "performance benchmarks" rather than firm requirements. "We're not going to try to hit a moving target," said Don Dulchinos, director of business development for CableLabs (Louisville, Colo.), which is heading up the OpenCable effort.
OpenCable's prime objective is fostering interoperability among set-tops running on different cable networks. This will be done by setting requirements for the set-top-box front end and by the way conditional-access needs are handled. But what goes inside the back end of the box remains unclear, including whether there will be a standard set of APIs or specific requirements for decoding U.S. digital HDTV signals inside the box.
"Many chip vendors talk about their chip sets being OpenCable-compliant, but I wonder how that's possible when OpenCable has issued no written technical specifications at this point," said Chris Adams, vice president of marketing and systems solutions at C-Cube Microsystems (Milpitas, Calif.).
By contrast, Canal Plus (Paris), Europe's largest digital-video service provider, has already given its chip-set and system partners, under a non-disclosure agreement, detailed technical specifications based on the company's MediaHighway+ platform, which is expected to migrate into the DVB's Multimedia Home Platform.
About 3 million digital set- tops are in use in Europe today that incorporate Canal Plus conditional access and MediaHighway middleware. The company said its proprietary software will be upgraded to DVB specs by next year.
Meanwhile, OpenCable's Dulchinos said the U.S. group expects to complete all but the software portion of its set-top interoperability specs by the end of the year. Among the software issues yet to be resolved is how to implement plans for running multiple operating systems. A software spec should be ready during the first half of 1999.
Dulchinos also said security and copy-protection issues have slowed development. "There's sort of a rolling procedure" for reviewing draft specifications, he said. The goal is to devise a "core specification" for set-top development. "This is only a one-year-old process," he added. "I think we're on track."
Also unclear is the question of Internet access. "OpenCable is slowly migrating to the requirements of having Web capability on some of these boxes," said Jack Guedj, senior business-development director for chip maker IGS Technologies Inc. (Boulder, Colo.). "They're nowhere close to an Internet or Web TV box."
In pursuit of solutions for advanced graphics, CPU and two-way communication capabilities in set-top boxes, Broadcom, TeraLogic, Equator Technologies and ATI Technologies, relative newcomers to the back end of the digital set-top box, are rushing products to market. Meanwhile, traditional decoder IC vendors such as STM, C-Cube and Philips Semiconductors are also unveiling freshly minted digital set-top platforms.
STMicroelectronics will unveil a new platform here called the Orion board that for the first time will use the ST40-the SH4 core licensed from Hitachi-as a main processor. The board will also include its STi7000 digital HDTV all-format decoder chip, as well as the company's ST20-based transport demux chip. A 3-D graphics chip, the RIVA-128, designed by partner Nvidia, is optional.
The board represents STM's first serious attempt at trying to pry open the U.S. digital cable market, company executives said. The European chip maker hopes to finesse its way into advanced digital cable set-tops such as General Instruments' DCT-5000 with a solution that provides a potent brew: a U.S. digital-TV all-format decoder combined with a unique memory architecture and ample processing power. The ST40 runs at 200 MHz and the ST20 at 60 MHz, upgraded to 100 MHz next year.
More important, said Bob Krysiak, division general manager of STM's micro and DSP division, "While any one of those chips is available today, a [common] design methodology is already in place so that any blocks are ready to be integrated by next fall, using a 0.25-micron process."
In a related development, C-Cube will announce today a new digital set-top silicon platform of its own, designated AViA@TV. The platform, which the company hopes to pitch to U.S. cable operators, has already been embraced by Canal Plus, Sony and Pioneer, according to company officials.
Built around a 32-bit Sparc RISC chip with a five-stage pipeline, the platform offers high-speed rendering based on an integrated CPU and on-chip hardware-acceleration capabilities such as blitter engine and color expander. A vertical and horizontal image filter eliminates flicker, and the chip boasts 24-bit color and 8-bit alpha blending capabilities. It is also capable of providing six graphics planes.
What makes the platform unique, said Adams, is an architecture in which a separate MPEG-2/Dolby AV decoder chip can communicate with the embedded CPU directly through a 22-bit address bus. That provides the decoder chip with high bandwidth and a full address data path to the CPU. "In previous solutions, there was never enough bandwidth available both for an AV decoder and a graphics accelerator," Adams said.
C-Cube's solution is also designed for two-way cable networks. Its integrated host CPU supports a media-access control layer for two-way networks, prepping the platform for two-way cable modems if connected with a separate physical-layer chip.
Similarly, Philips Semiconductors recently unveiled in Europe its own set-top silicon. The Digital Video Platform includes a 32-bit MIPS proces-sor-based transport MPEG source decoder and a separate audio-, video- and graphics-decoder chip. The platform allows OEMs to opt for a TriMedia media processor, making it possible for both service operators and system companies to upgrade their products.
Guenther Dengel, managing director of consumer systems at Philips Semiconductors, said that "four to five OEMs have already taken our concept and invested their own resources into further executions" in their digital set-tops and TV products.
Digital TV in Europe has evolved into a more popular form of multichannel broadcasting, often coupled with limited but established interactive services. Meanwhile, digital interactive TV services in the United Sates have been largely oversold and seldom deployed. The result has been lost credibility within the U.S. electronics industry about the prospects for interactive services.
Whereas the U.S. cable industry has largely failed to deliver on its interactive DTV promises, in Europe more than a few service providers have made commercial progress.
Canal Plus, for example, already offers an electronic programming guide, tele-banking and tele-shopping using a smart card on its set-top box, along with interactive weather forecasts and simple video games.
By implementing middleware technology, including its own virtual machine, Canal Plus has developed DTV applications "completely independent of any chip set or microprocessor used in any set-top," claimed Jean-Franois Jezequel, marketing and sales general manager of DTV technologies at the company.
Canal Plus has already ported its MediaHighway middleware to STM's ST20 and to the PowerPC. The company has now added C-Cube's Sparc V8 to its portfolio.
Jezequel said 200 Mips of CPU power-half of it devoted to graphics acceleration-is a requirement of the company's next-generation Media Web Box. It is to be launched next year. A 28.8k modem is the minimum requirement for a return channel for satellite; also needed are 4 to 8 Mbytes of RAM and 4 Mbytes of flash memory, he said.