LOUISVILLE, Colo. Members of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) met this week with members of CableLabs Inc. and other designers from cable, consumer-electronics and software companies to hammer out details of a Java TV applications programming interface that could be broadly used for both cable and terrestrial broadcast TV. Meanwhile, the CableLabs consortium here has revealed it will not use Java in a basic version of its OpenCable specification for next-generation set-top boxes, although Java is still being considered for an advanced version of the set-top spec.
The moves came as Sun Microsystems Inc. formally rolled out its Jini environment, promoting the Java-based communications technology broadly as an enabler for wireless, telco or cable companies to deliver their services to pagers, cell phones, handhelds and set-tops.
Spearheaded by Aninda DasGupta, the chairman of the ATSC's DTV Application Software Environment group, marathon meetings were being held between the ATSC members and the CableLabs consortium at press time. The cooperation between ATSC and CableLabs will give a shot in the arm to Java in the TV arena, although use of a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) may now be confined only to set-tops developed according to an advanced version of the OpenCable spec.
The split of the OpenCable set-top spec came last fall, said Laurie Schwartz, vice president of advanced platforms and services at CableLabs. Members decided to break the specifications into two phases.
One is a baseline spec that defines the minimum set of requirements for straightforward video-on-demand types of applications. The advanced version, an extension to the baseline spec, is being developed for digital interactive TV applications and services.
Decoupling the two frees the group to move forward with the product development that's necessary, while buying time to iron out intricate API issues.
Schwartz said that despite this week's substantial progress, it will take at least until the middle of this year for the OpenCable initiative members to sort out the complexity of software API issues for advanced digital set-tops.
Meanwhile, she also said that the baseline version of the OpenCable specifications, expected to be completed in a few weeks, will not include JVM. Schwartz, however, did confirm that JVM is "being considered" in the advanced spec, and that OpenCable members are working with the ATSC group to hammer out a common Java TV API.
At this point, the OpenCable spec is being released "in bits and pieces," said Schwartz. The interface with an HDTV based on IEEE 1394, as well as the spec for a separable "Point of Deployment" security module, are already approved by the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers. The functional requirements-basic technology building blocks-for set-top devices are scheduled to be sent to the SCTE by Feb. 8, she added. The interface to networks, including things like how to tune the right channels, is expected to be completed over the next few weeks, she said.
Threat to Microsoft?
Although cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. plans to use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE kernel on some of its set-top boxes, a Java TV API could threaten Microsoft's efforts to establish Windows as a platform for digital TV. ATSC and CableLabs are ultimately looking for JVM-based interoperability among a variety of platforms based on different OSes in advanced digital set-tops and DTVs.
Steve Guggenheimer, group product manager for DTV at Microsoft, argued that nothing has changed in terms of its strategy. The company continues to promote creating content in HTML for the Internet, but for interactive applications it is pushing the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum initiative spec, which it leads with Intel Corp. Microsoft continues to advocate that client applications that directly talk to a set-top should be based on the Win32 API.
"This is a simple, ongoing argument," he said. "In the computer industry, they already tried to use JVM to write applications once and run anywhere, but so far, it hasn't really succeeded. Things will not get any easier simply by moving JVM into the set-top world, where more variety of operating systems and hardware exists."
Meanwhile, Sun is aggressively promoting its own agenda: the proliferation of JVM and Jini, both among service providers and device vendors.
Sun's Jini partners include Sony, Philips, Toshiba, Samsung, Funai and Motorola, said Samir Mitra, director of marketing and business development for Jini at Sun. "Some of them are seriously looking into Jini-ized set-top development," he said. With service providers such as America Online and Kinko's already committed, a new crop of companies planning to offer residential gateways are partnering with Sun on Jini, Mitra said. They include big names like Cisco to a startup like Encanto Networks.
The Jini connection technology could find its first home-before cable-in a wireless network world providing localized information to users of pagers and cell phones, predicted Mitra.
Sun is also committed to making Jini broadly available to the market, by offering an uncommonly flexible licensing structure. System vendors need to pay for the Jini logo and have to pass the compatibility test. But unlike Java licensing, Sun is charging vendors no fee for Jini compatibility testing.
Jim Waldo, engineering manager at Sun's consumer and embedded group and one of the chief architects of Jini, said that Sun is charging only 10 cents per box, or handheld, for the logo. System vendors could also license it for $250,000 a year for unlimited use. Sun is allowing vendors to license the Jini logo alone, separate from licensing Java.
Waldo said that "Jini is not so much a physical network as about what to do once you have that network established." If a company like TCI wants to leverage Jini, for example, "TCI will have a set-top box look for and find [Jini] lookup service that is at their provider's side. And then, they could provide Jini-enabled services to customers without having to provide code."
How soon could all of this happen in the cable world? The answer: It could still be years away. The development of the Java TV API is not yet completed, and back-end servers and heavy-duty software to support all the interactive requests are not ready yet. While JVM is likely to become an essential element of an OpenCable-compliant advanced set-top, Jini services are not part of today's OpenCable discussions.