SAN JOSE, Calif. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2007, Dell and Microsoft unveiled the first living room PCs able to directly receive a digital cable TV signal, bypassing the need for a set-top box. Since that time more than a dozen other PC makers—including Hewlett-Packard and Sony--signed agreements with Microsoft to build such products based on Windows Media Center.
But the living room PCs languished, in part due to the limitations of the cable TV link. The Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR) defined by Cable Labs, the R&D consortium of the major cable TV providers, only allows for one-way reception.
The OCUR card does not support two-way capabilities such as video-on-demand and interactive programming guides. In addition, the first OCUR subsystems cost as much as $300.
"The market has not developed as strong as Microsoft or the OEMs expected," said Ralph Brown, chief technology officer of Cable Labs. "There are thousands of [OCUR] systems out there, not millions."
A new specification that defines a two-way digital cable TV link is in the works at Cable Labs. It could revive the living room PC, but Brown said he could give no details of the spec because it is being developed under confidentiality agreements.
The standard in progress is essentially a version for the PC of the Cable Labs' Open Cable Application Platform (OCAP) spec for set-top boxes and TVs that cable providers have branded as the tru2way service. OCAP, debuted by cable providers at CES in 2006 provides a host of interactive features and downloadable applications based on Java.
In the past, Microsoft has clashed with Java-based environments, pushing for use of its interactive technologies based on Microsoft's .Net capabilities, rather than Java which was initially created by Sun Microsystems. It's not clear how the Java/.Net rivalry may be playing out in the current work on OCAP for PCs.
Microsoft plays a key role in bringing digital cable to PCs. That's because it must certify with Cable Labs its Windows Media digital rights management system will adequately protect the premium content delivered via the cable TV link based on a set of so-called robustness rules Cable Labs defines. Microsoft in turn defines legal agreements for PC makers using its Windows Media Center that passes on certain content responsibilities to the OEMs
Some PC makers have complained the process is unusually time consuming and detailed. For instance, they said, PC makers must certify each individual product in a product family as compliant.
"I do know OEMs have expressed frustration" with the OCUR process, said Brown. "It's convenient to blame Cable Labs for that, but at the end of the day we have an obligation to our [cable TV] members to make products work and everyone has a part in that," he added.
While the veil of secrecy covers progress on the PC products, set-top boxes and TVs based on OCAP will roll out this year from consumer giants such as Panasonic and Samsung. Sony recently said it will back the spec as well, dropping its drive for a competing spec called DCR+ and signing an agreement with Cable Labs.
"Tru2Way is the big push this year with the CE industry," said Brown.