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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 The photo is outdated, but I love the visual enough that I’ve decided to ignore that fact.

Cable’s Heavy Hitters Talk IP

SCTE Cable-Tec Expo Leslie Ellis CableLabs Bresnan Charter Rogers

Several cable head honchos got together this morning for the SCTE opening session moderated by Leslie Ellis. The panel included Charter CTO Marwan Fawaz, CableLabs CEO Paul Liao, Rogers engineering SVP Dermot J.A. O’Carroll, and Bresnan VP Pragash Pillai. Among the topics discussed, IP delivery was the headliner. How do you reconcile Tru2way and IP? Why go IP? And how do you do IP in the home? It was a reasonably frank discussion and certainly a lot different than anything I heard a year ago.

The question of cable IP video delivery is both about transport efficiency and access to new devices. The panelists all agreed that IP delivery will likely make cable systems more efficient, but the Rogers SVP O’Carroll laid it on the line by saying that’s not the reason cable companies are looking at IP. It’s the reach of IP that makes it appealing to operators.

So what about Tru2way? The major MSOs in the US have committed to Tru2way, and Comcast recently announced that it expects to have its entire network Tru2way-compatible by the end of this year. But not everyone is so enthusiastic. There’s no mandate saying operators have to go forward with Tru2way, and O’Carroll at least made it clear that Rogers hasn’t made its decision yet. Charter’s Fawaz meanwhile suggested that while his company has committed to Tru2way, he doesn’t see it as an either/or proposition. Charter may still add Web-based technology into the equation. For his part, Paul Liao from CableLabs believes the advantages from Tru2way are so substantial that we’ll see a lot of deployments. And he does have a point. For example, there really aren’t open standards yet for Web-based interactive TV.

As far as IP delivery in the home goes, Marwan Fawaz talked about several options. Providers can use a transport gateway solution like the one Motorola has introduced, they can use a centralized storage device in the home that sends out video streams to local set-tops, or they can push the heavy lifting back into the network and use thin clients at the household level. According to Fawaz, all of these options are viable, and the issue is one cable operators are still researching now.

What’s most interesting to me is just how far this discussion has come in a short twelve months. Last year the conversation was almost entirely about Tru2way and EBIF. Here’s welcoming IP to the cable party.

EBIF – A Sign of the Times

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Even as tru2way held the spotlight at The Cable Show this year, EBIF was equally present, and perhaps even more top of mind for MSOs. If tru2way is the gold standard, then EBIF is the currency you can use to cash out quickly.

Part of the evidence on site included a number of EBIF applications demoed across the show floor. Every time I turned around I bumped into one particular Showtime app that teases the premium channel with marketing vids, program details, and even free episodes of top shows. With a couple of clips you can order the channel right from your TV screen. The application has been trialed with Time Warner Cable, and reportedly will see major distribution later this year.

Meanwhile there was also plenty of talk around The Cable Show about Canoe’s efforts to introduce  EBIF-based interactive TV apps in the next several months.  And Comcast has also now said that it will have EBIF on 10 million set-tops by year’s end.

Of course, folks who are really paying attention know that Verizon is already out of the gate with EBIF. With very little fanfare, Verizon began deploying EBIF applications for FiOS TV across Motorola set-tops last year. Interactive TV is already here.

The Roadmap for Tru2way

comcast-tru2way-2009-applications-cable-show-panel

Interactive TV got a bad name back in the nineties when poor execution (and financial meltdowns) took all of the momentum out of the iTV movement. So some people are quite reasonably skeptical when the topic of interactive television comes up today. Fortunately the environment – from technology standards to market competition – has changed radically. As one of the execs on yesterday’s interactive TV panel put it: It looks “real” this time.

With EBIF and tru2way rollouts happening now, interactive TV is only one part of the enhanced television game. Updated program guides are top of the list on operators’ tru2way agenda (Comcast’s Mark Hess called it “job 1″), and, as we finally confirmed late Tuesday, Time Warner Cable has partnered with Motorola to bring out multiroom or whole-home DVR using the tru2way platform.

In addition, the retail market is poised and ready to bring out new tru2way devices to plug into the cable networks. Comcast’s Hess laid out some of the challenges ahead, including the chicken-and-egg problem of which comes first: the network, the apps, or the hardware? However, he also predicted that more retail tru2way devices will filter out later this year, with CES 2010 set up to be a major showcase for new tru2way product launches.

Perhaps the right term for the industry’s attitude now is cautiously optimistic. Everyone is quick to do a reality check when the hype gets a little too loud, but at the same time, there is real excitement about the potential for enhanced television on this go-around. It really does look “real” this time.

Motorola and Time Warner Cable Do Tru2way Multiroom DVR

motorola-time-warner-cable-logo1

This just in: Motorola and Time Warner Cable are working together to deploy the cable industry’s first tru2way multiroom DVR solution. Motorola started developing this home networking technology literally years ago, but it’s the advent of tru2way that has made it appealing for cable operators to deploy. More to come on this subject…