LAS VEGAS In a milestone move, the cable TV industry has agreed to deploy an open, Java-based software platform starting in October. Chief executives of the top six U.S. cable operators pledged in a press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show last week that all of their digital networks will be ready for the new platform by July 2009.
Spurred by a government mandate, cable operators committed to embrace the OpenCable Applications Platform, a middleware layer that has been the subject of debate and development for a decade. Ocap, specified by the industry's CableLabs R&D arm, will allow a broad range of third-party systems and applications to operate on cable networks for the first time and will probably initiate the phasing out of the closed cable set-top box.
The decision is a coup for Sun Microsystems Inc., which will reap Java royalties on every Ocap box, and a blow for Microsoft Corp. as it seeks to embed its software in cable systems.
In its initial form, however, Ocap does not include a browser or links to the Internet, considered the life's blood of next-generation consumer systems. Portable de-vices that can download premium content off the Web provided much of the buzz at CES this year (see story, page 85).
Some observers have called cable networks "walled prisons" because it's not clear when they will support Internet browsing. "We will [do so eventually] because it is in our interest to have the best experience for our customers," said Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast Corp. "But our first goal was to have a standard middleware layer anyone can write to."
"We need to have technology that serves all our customers," said Glenn Britt, CEO of Time Warner Cable. "There's a large number of analog TVs and homes with second, third and fourth TVs that have no set-tops today."
Scientific-Atlanta and Motorola Broadband (formerly General Instrument) have traditionally been the main suppliers of closed cable set-top boxes. At the press conference, executives from LG Electronics, Panasonic and Samsung shared the stage with cable CEOs to say they were in early field trials of Ocap boxes. Samsung is the first OEM to win CableLabs certification for an Ocap system a large-screen, flat-panel TV that Time Warner demonstrated at the press conference.
Cable operators had dragged their heels on Ocap since 2001, but pressure from the FCC, competition from satellite TV and the threat of telco-provided Internet Protocol TV have conspired to bring about the cable industry's change of heart. The consumer electronics industry, for its part, is eager to cover the development cost of Ocap implementation by applying the application programming interface in a range of products. And for consumer vendors, Java-based middleware is a defense against Microsoft's plans for incursion onto traditional consumer turf. Microsoft's TV platform does not support Java.
So does the Ocap agreement render Microsoft's TV platform inconsequential? The question, asked of CableLabs president and CEO Dick Green at the press conference, sparked laughter. "All operating systems matter to us," Green replied.
Microsoft has been busily working on IPTV, with the first major U.S. deployment, by SBC, scheduled for early this year. It remains unclear to what extent Microsoft might support Ocap in two-way CableCard-capable Media Center PCs. The company did not return calls by press time.
CableLabs' Green said Ocap's Java-based API will allow cable operators to build "a national footprint for two-way digital products." The platform's "write once" proposition, he said, allows the application software to run without regard to the set-top used.
Cablevision chief operating officer Thomas Rutledge called Ocap "a weapon" against satellite TV operators that enables "robust two-way services they can't offer."
Indeed, two-way cable-ready HDTV sets integrating Ocap will represent a ready-made digital cable market. Whereas 30 million TVs are sold every year in the United States, "the cable industry ships fewer than 10 million set-tops a year," observed Mike Hayashi, Time Warner Cable's senior vice president of advanced engineering and subscriber technologies.
Moreover, expect to see combo set-tops that will integrate a Java-based high-definition Blu-ray Disc player. In another coup for Sun, the Blu-ray Consortium voted in December to use Java software. If the cable industry were to continue as a closed world of proprietary platforms and conditional-access systems, such combo products would be hard to envision.