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EBIF and iTV on Roadmaps for 2010

If you’ve followed the TV tech industry at all, you know the difficulties associated with getting interactive television apps to market. Technologists and marketers have held out the promise of iTV for years with little to show for it.  But slowly that’s changing. Two years ago CableLabs and Comcast put tru2way (aka OCAP) front and center at CES. Last year, the reality of legacy equipment in the field set in, and the focus shifted (back) to EBIF. This year EBIF has gotten an update, and several cable operators have committed to widespread EBIF rollouts.

Official tallies are hard to come by, but we know Comcast deployed EBIF on Motorola set-tops last year, and Verizon started even earlier with EBIF embedded in a guide update that was pushed out at the end of 2008 and into 2009. Now that CableLabs has updated the EBIF spec, several other cable operators are on board.  Most notably, Time Warner Cable has said EBIF is a priority in 2010. Charter, Cox, and Bright House have also reiterated their commitments to the technology.

So what does this mean for consumers? Addressable (targeted) advertising is going to be a big focus, at least in trials, but consumers should also see a number of new widget-type experiences. As an example, Verizon just launched the Showtime Sports Interactive service. During Showtime boxing and mixed martial arts events, consumers can now access bios, stats, trivia, polls, and more directly on the TV screen. Verizon states that this is the first-ever HD EBIF app, and the first-ever EBIF app to incorporate interactive polling. It won’t be the last by a long shot.

*Note: Industry folks know that Biap, the company listed in the photo above, changed its name to FourthWall Media last year. The photo is outdated, but I love the visual enough that I’ve decided to ignore that fact.

Yahoo and Intel Preview the Widget Channel

Yahoo and Intel previewed their Widget Channel today, a “television application framework optimized for TV and related devices.” Essentially, the two companies are showing how to bring a wide range of new applications to TV via widgets, and they’re advocating for an open standard in order to fill out a “TV Widget ecosystem”. (Analysis up from ABI and NewTeeVee)

I’ve followed Yahoo’s next-gen TV efforts sporadically for a couple of years now, and I’ve heard about Intel’s work in integrating TV and the Internet as well. This announcement didn’t come as a huge surprise, but it’s nonetheless a pretty big milestone in the ongoing evolution of television. Widgets, which are deployed all over the Web, are still fairly rare in the living-room TV experience. While there are exceptions, most TV services do not come with Internet-based applications today, much less choose-your-own widgets.

Since Motorola executive Nick Chakalos was quoted in the Intel/Yahoo release, I thought I’d catch up with him for a few quick questions. Here’s what he had to say.

Can you explain how the Widget Channel works?

It’s very similar to widget services on the Web. The vision is that consumers would go to the Widget Channel to access a menu or gallery of applications designed to personalize the TV experience and make it more interactive. For example, users could pick widgets that would track sports stats or allow interaction among friends around television programming.

Motorola added a quote to the Intel/Yahoo release. What is Motorola’s involvement or interest in the widget initiative from Intel and Yahoo?

For Motorola, the value is in the goal of Intel and Yahoo to create an open standard for bringing interactive applications to the TV. We’ve been part of the evolution of TV technology for decades, so of course we’ve been examining how to integrate the power of the Internet with traditional television broadcasting. In ongoing discussions with both Intel and Yahoo, we’ve seen a lot of promise in the concept of widgetized TV. We also think that Motorola is very well positioned to bring this type of service to an operator environment, whether IPTV or cable, where integration with legacy or next-gen infrastructure such as OCAP/tru2way is a challenge we can address.

How do you see this initiative unfolding?

Operators are experimenting now with different ways to expand the TV experience, but it will definitely start in the retail channel on devices like Blu-ray Disc players, Internet-capable TVs, game consoles and set-tops. We’ll see it introduced in the cable and telco channels after technology, consumer adoption and business models are proven.

Build Your Own tru2way App!

The last time I talked extensively about Motorola’s OCAP software development kit, the name tru2way hadn’t even been unveiled. Now that tru2way is everywhere, and cable operators and CE vendors alike have thrown their weight behind it, I’m thrilled to finally have an update on the SDK. It’s available! Today!

Official word on the hold-up is that a thorough open source audit mired the SDK in testing much longer than expected. The good news is, because the Motorola tool is built on open source, customers don’t need to worry about any other third-party licenses.

To clear up a few questions on the SDK, I talked with Motorola’s Frank Goddard yesterday. Here are the details:

Who is the SDK geared for?
The SDK is suited for three types of customers: established interactive TV vendors like TV Guide and Microsoft, new application developers (including small development shops), and cable operators themselves.

What does it include?
Motorola ships the SDK software and a Motorola set-top to every licensee so applications can be tested in a stand-alone environment. There is no additional hardware needed – no headend, no object carousel servers, nothing. Customers also get full access to a technical support website and regular software upgrades as Motorola releases updates.

Are there any other OCAP SDKs available today?
There are, but they tend to be very expensive and/or require additional hardware. Motorola’s solution is relatively inexpensive.

What kinds of OCAP/tru2way applications are we likely to see developed?
Initially the focus is on program guides (EPGs) and VOD services, though there will likely be a push for new advertising applications beyond that.

What kind of response is Motorola expecting for the SDK?
There has already been a huge response among people who were aware that an SDK would be made available. Orders are already coming in.

Is there a product fact sheet?
It is now available here.

Are there any product pictures?
Screenshots of the interface and a sample gaming application are below.

Continue reading

Light Reading Live

Light Reading hosted a one-day event yesterday on Cable Next-Gen Video Strategies. While I wasn’t able to make it out to LA for the conference, I’m hoping to hear back soon from a friend who was on the ground. In the meantime, Jeff Baumgartner writes that Mark Cuban’s interview with analyst Alan Breznick was as interesting as a Cuban interview always is. Cuban believes tru2way is a good start for the cable industry, but that it needs to be more open to achieve its full potential.

From everything I’ve heard about the tru2way/OCAP development process, there are realistic limits to how open it can be. Forget the standard itself. The issue is that cable operators have to prioritize the apps they’re going to deploy, at least initially. The good news is that program guides (EPGs) are at the top of that priority list. I predict we’ll see some significant EPG improvements over the next 18 months – a result of both growing tru2way deployments and competition from the telcos.

And speaking of which, take a look at Dave Zatz’s coverage of the latest beta software Verizon is trialing for FiOS TV. It’s bringing Web video to the Motorola set-top.

Caller ID on the TV

motorola-caller-id-tv-ces-2008.jpg

Matt Doyle from Motorola ran through a great demo for me in the booth yesterday showing Caller ID on the TV. Unfortunately the noise in the video I shot is a bit overwhelming, so here’s the info in text form.

First, Motorola is showing both an OCAP/Tru2way Caller ID application and a non-OCAP version. The former is due out in Q2 and the latter will begin trials this quarter. The overall solution is comprised of a set-top, the actual application and an application server. The application server, or platform, is the same for both versions of the service. It’s also designed to support many other types of applications including social-networking features. Caller ID is only the first application for the platform.

On to the fun stuff. Not only does this application show Caller ID on your TV screen, but it will actually route calls from certain phone numbers to certain TVs in the house. There are also features like call logs shown above.

Wondering whether people actually care about Caller ID on the TV? Apparently they do. Expect to see it soon from an operator near you.

MotorolaDEV Platform for OCAP, er Tru2way

It’s been a very productive morning over at the Motorola booth. I’ve spoken to several product managers, shot some video and taken lots of stills. My time with an Internet connection is limited at the moment, however, so for this post I will let the video do the talking. Hit “play” for a walk-through of the MotorolaDEV Platform for OCAP… which is now called Tru2way.

Also, check out Motorola’s announcement on a new set-top deal with BT. More on that later. For now, in addition to the press release, see Bob Larribeau’s write-up on the news.

P.S. See my note on video quality from yesterday.

 

OCAP Becomes OpenCable Becomes Tru2Way?

ocap-tru2way.jpg

Don’t get used to OpenCable. The name, that is. While I’m still stuck on calling the standard OCAP, Mike Robuck at CED reports that the name is likely to change again. With a possible launch at CES, CableLabs appears poised to introduce Tru2way as the new moniker for the Open Cable Application Platform.

Name change or not, the OpenCable standard made serious headway in 2007 – first through overtures to the developer community like the “first, ever OCAP Developers’ Conference” at The Cable Show and the introduction of software developer kits (SDKs) like Motorola’s own, and then through public declarations of support from the CE front, including announcements from Intel and TiVo. Expect more OpenCable, or rather Tru2way, noise at CES. Perhaps some new apps? New operator deployments?