itaas's Rustagi and TVWorks' Thomson on the Companies' New ETV/tru2way Partnership


 

At the NCTA Cable Show in New Orleans last month, itaas--a company which, among other things, operates developer programs,
under the brand "istart," for Time Warner Cable's Mystro Digital Navigator (MDN) and OCAP Digital Navigator (ODN) platforms and for Cisco's SARA/PowerTV and OCAP Axiom platforms--announced
that it has been tapped by TVWorks--a joint venture between Comcast
and Cox whose forbears include Liberate Technologies and
MetaTV--to operate a developer program for its ETV and
OCAP/tru2way platforms. As a result of the companies' deal,
developers who join the istart program will now gain access to tools,
documentation, software upgrades and support for the TVWorks
platforms. Vibha Rustagi, itaas's president and CEO, and Greg
Thomson, TVWorks' SVP of product management and business
development, recently spoke to [itvt]'s Tracy Swedlow about the
companies' new deal, about the significance of and the relationship
between the ETV and OCAP/tru2way standards, about ongoing efforts
by the cable industry to encourage PC and mobile developers to build
applications to those standards, and more.

[itvt]: Greg, could you give us a little background on the ETV standard,
and on TVWorks' involvement in it?

Thomson: Yes. A few years ago, CableLabs and the cable industry
decided that we needed a cable-wide standard for applications that
could be embedded or bound within video programming--both linear
and on-demand programming. MetaTV was tapped as one of the leads
to help drive that standard, and, following its acquisition, became the
basis of the TVWorks applications division, which is jointly owned by
Comcast and Cox.

The result of this push for a standard for bound applications is the
CableLabs Enhanced Television standard, otherwise known as
EBIF--which stands for Enhanced Binary Interchange Format. That's a
techy term for the actual format of the applications, which are in binary
form as they travel over the wire to the set-top box.

So this new CableLabs standard is now being developed and tested by
various MSO's. Comcast is somewhat further ahead of the others,
largely because they co-own the former MetaTV; but Time Warner
Cable has also made a lot of progress and is now testing various
implementations of the standard. Among other things, the Canoe
initiative, which is a cross-MSO initiative for advanced advertising, is
dependent upon the deployment of the CableLabs ETV standard. It will
leverage the ETV standard for quite a lot of its advanced advertising
applications.

[itvt]: And just to clarify, in case any of our readers are unaware of it,
Project Canoe is...

Rustagi: The goal of the Canoe initiative is to have an overall
standardized platform that all parties can use to implement advanced
advertising--the MSO's, the developers, the content providers and the
advertisers. It will also provide a large footprint for advanced
advertising technologies. The ETV standard, which is designed to work
on all the legacy set-top boxes in the market today, is essential to
achieving that large footprint.

[itvt]: So tell us more about itaas' and TVWorks' collaboration on ETV
and tru2way...

Rustagi: Well, as you know, we've been offering our istart developer
program for over five years: we kicked it off with support for
Scientific-Atlanta's proprietary platform, SARA/PowerTV, and we
subsequently expanded it to include OCAP Axiom support and support
for Time Warner Cable's Mystro Digital Navigator and OCAP Digital
Navigator. So adding support for TVWorks' ETV and tru2way
implementations is really just a natural extension of our istart offering.
We've been supporting proprietary platforms on legacy set-tops and
we've been supporting tru2way for next-generation set-tops; so
supporting ETV, which enables advanced applications on legacy and
next-generation boxes, is a natural direction for us to go in.

[itvt]: How many developers are currently participating in this new
developer program you're operating for TVWorks?

Rustagi: Even though we've only just announced this program, and the
user-agent or client for developers hast yet to be released, there are
already a handful of developers who are working directly with
TVWorks on ETV applications.

Thomson: We've had a number of developers--around a dozen or
so--developing new applications for the TVWorks ETV platform and
integrating things with the platform for a couple of years now. But by
announcing this new partnership with itaas, we're having a coming-out
party, so to speak, for these developers. We're broadening access to
support and expertise for them and other developers who use our ETV
platform, and also our tru2way platform of course.

[itvt]: Are you finding there is more interest on the part of developers in
your ETV platform--at least initially--than in your tru2way platform?

Thomson: I think interest in both of the standards is developing in
parallel: it really depends on what the developer's objectives are. If they
want their application to run on a broad base of legacy set-top boxes in
the field, then they're certainly interested in ETV. But that doesn't
necessarily mean that they're not interested in tru2way: they might also
want to enhance that same application with additional features that are
supported by tru2way on next-generation set-top boxes. So in many
cases, it's not one or the other: they're interested in both of these
initiatives. It really depends on the individual application and the
individual application provider. Sometimes we have conversations with
developers, and they'll ask us what is the right technology for them to
develop in: ETV or tru2way. The answer comes down to: "What's your
application and what kind of reach are you trying to get for it?"
Because ETV runs on both Java-based and native set-top boxes, if a
developer is developing an advertising application and wants to reach
all the eyeballs they possibly can, then the answer is probably going to
be ETV--as that will allow the app to run even on low-end set-top
boxes. Someone else, however, might be developing a more complex
application, like a game. And they might have a different business
model that doesn't necessarily rely on having the broadest reach
possible. So, if an application's business model is based on its advanced
features, and it's being targeted at an advanced tier of subscribers, then
they'll probably want to develop it in tru2way.

But, in general, I would say that the level of interest is fairly equal in
both tru2way and ETV: if you're interested in building complex
applications, then you're probably focused on when tru2way is
deployed more widely; and if you want to deploy a relatively simple
application immediately and widely, then ETV gives you the tools you
need to do that.

Rustagi: Another way to look at it, of course, is that if you're more
interested in bound apps, you're probably going to be more interested in
ETV initially; and if you're more interested in unbound apps, you may
be more interested in tru2way.

Thomson: That's another good distinction. There are various instances
where it doesn't apply, but I think in general that that makes a lot of
sense. Again, it delineates by desired reach and functionality: there are
some basic unbound applications like TV caller-ID that can be
implemented with ETV and can therefore take advantage of its reach.

[itvt]: Now is the new developer program that itaas is operating for
TVWorks ready to go, or is this something that you're announcing now,
in time for the Cable Show, but that will launch a little later?

Rustagi: It's ready to go. We already have the infrastructure in
place--we have all the equipment we need. We have a fully functional
lab, ready to support ETV developers. Through the program, we'll be
providing the SDK's you need for ETV development. We've been
fielding questions from developers for the past 12 to 18 months about
when we're going to support ETV. So we've long been aware that
there's a need for a program like this, and we've worked to make sure
that we have everything ready to go in advance of this announcement.

[itvt]: How do you see the ETV standard developing going forward? As
you know, there's a perception out there that it's basically frozen--just a
stop-gap while the market waits for the legacy set-top boxes to be
cycled out and for tru2way to have a broader footprint. But isn't it
actually evolving?

Thomson: It's not frozen. It's definitely going to evolve. It will continue
to move forward, and there will be more advanced features added to it.

For example, as part of our advanced development efforts on our ETV
platform here in Mill Valley, we've pushed forward with things like
simple animation capabilities. Now, I don't know whether that
particular development will ever become part of the standard, but it
does definitely give ETV applications a little more "pop" on the screen,
and we plan to give developers access to this feature as we go forward.
And, as ETV is increasingly deployed on Java set-tops--on the more
advanced set-tops--it will be able to take advantage of those boxes'
resources: more processing power, more bandwidth, more memory, etc.
There may also be further spec evolution in terms of DVR,
addressability, HD support, etc., as more applications get deployed.

But you're right. I do think there's a misperception out there that ETV is
just a stop-gap. I think the relationship between ETV and tru2way is
often misunderstood when people are talking about cable standards for
set-top platforms. ETV and tru2way are actually entirely
complementary: tru2way, as a platform for advanced set-tops, enables
things like more advanced interfaces, navigation guides and so on--so
core applications for the cable industry. On Java platforms, ETV is a
complement to that, and is designed to enable bound applications. For
example, things like advanced advertising, enhanced VOD and so forth.
The two standards really work in tandem, depending on what the
application is and what its objectives are. Some developers will be
working on complex, unbound applications and will decide to use
tru2way. Others will have, say, applications that are designed to work
with video, and will decide that ETV is sufficient for their needs.

[itvt]: Are there efforts underway to integrate the two standards more
closely with each other?

Thomson: Absolutely. There are plans already in place to make these
two technologies actually integrate--or at least have more interplay with
each other--on the set-top box.

[itvt]: Now presumably in this age of digital convergence, development
efforts around ETV and tru2way are taking into account things like
broadband video, IP telephony, mobile phone services, etc., correct?

Rustagi: Absolutely. At the NCTA Cable Show, we showcased our
MPTV product, which provides a gateway on the backend that allows
for delivery of video assets, related to the content you're watching on
your TV, to mobile or broadband devices. The assets--the videos or
music or games--get automatically transcoded for the appropriate
device, be it a broadband device or a mobile device; and the frontend
for that is an ETV application. We also showcased a tru2way
application that was developed by itaas for Cisco's Web Video
platform, and that works in the other direction, so to speak, from the
MPTV ETV application. It's a Web video application: it takes
broadband content, provided and managed in this case by a company
called thePlatform, and that content is ingested by Cisco's CDS servers,
then transcoded for cable and showcased in a tru2way environment. So,
to answer your question, there's definitely significant development of
ETV and tru2way applications that enable cross-platform
services--from ETV or tru2way to mobile and broadband, and from
broadband to tru2way. Both tru2way and ETV are not only very
powerful on the set-top box side, but also very transparent to mobile or
broadband devices.

[itvt]: Do you guys feel that the cable industry is doing enough to reach
out to the Internet and mobile developer communities, and encourage
them to develop to these new standards?

Rustagi: Yes. As you guys have reported recently, there's an initiative
called OEDN that's a partnership between many different companies,
but that's really being headed up by Will Kreth andTime Warner
Cable, and there's also an initiative by CableLabs on Java.net. The goal
of those initiatives is to attract the developer community--specifically
the Java developer community--and encourage them to develop all
kinds of different applications for the set-top box, just as they do for
mobile and broadband platforms today.

Thomson: I should also add that, beyond the two initiatives Vibha just
mentioned, the cable industry is engaged in various other efforts to
reach out to the broad developer community that already exists for the
PC and for mobile devices--the goal being to make them start thinking
of the TV as just another device that they can develop to. There are
multiparty discussions underway right now between cable and other
industry players to make this happen. In fact, in a way, this partnership
with itaas should be seen in this light: taking an ETV developer
program out of a cable company and giving it to an independent
company is one of the first steps in this direction, and there will be
more steps coming.

[itvt]: Vibha, I understand that itaas claims that it enables developers in
effect to test their applications on millions of set-top boxes before
deploying them. Could you explain how you achieve that?

Rustagi: Yes, we do that with two different products. There's our VOD
session simulator, which has been deployed in a number of MSO labs,
and which, as its name suggests, is geared toward VOD-based
applications. It lets you do load-testing by simulating millions of
sessions in your lab environment: you can look at the capacity and
discover where the bottlenecks could be before you launch your
VOD-based application. The other product, which we just announced,
is our SDV client simulator. That basically does the same thing, but on
the Switched Digital Video side: it simulates extensive amounts of
traffic for the SDV client and the SDV sessions. That's currently being
beta-tested by an MSO.

[itvt]: Now I understand that itaas showcased a number of other
applications at the Cable Show in addition to the ones you mentioned
earlier. Could you talk a little about those?

Rustagi: Sure. There was one from TAG Networks, which is a
company that develops network-based games. We showcased the
tru2way implementation of the frontend that we built for them. We also
integrated our MPTV technology with their offering. The result is that,
if you're playing one of the Tag Networks games on TV, you could
download that game to your mobile device. We also showcased a
tru2way implementation of Integra5's TV-based caller-ID application,
and a tru2way frontend we built for iCueTV, which is a company that
offers a backend platform for tcommerce. And, of course, we
showcased some of our products, such as the SDV session simulator,
the VOD session simulator, our ECS product and our remote headend
service.

[itvt]: Greg, I understand that, in addition to developing an ETV
platform and a tru2way platform, TVWorks develops individual
applications, correct?

Thomson: Yes. We basically perform three roles: developing those two
platforms, and then developing specific applications that are called for
as part of Comcast's and Cox's strategic roadmaps. And, of course, we
have another role in addition: that is, to help enable the ecosystem
around both ETV and tru2way to flourish. That role sees us developing
tools and processes and programs to bring more and more developers to
the TVWorks platforms. This partnership with itaas was arguably our
first step outside the cable community proper to bring more developers
to these cable platforms, and there will be more steps coming.

[itvt]: What will those other steps be?

Thomson: I'm not at liberty to be too specific here, but basically we'll
be continuing to broaden the access that the developer community has
to these cable platforms, and we'll be continuing to expand the number
of tools they have at their disposal--including tools for development,
testing and deployment. Our goal, simply put, is to make it easier to
build and deploy applications for cable systems.

[itvt]: Just to clarify, how do the tools you offer compare to the tools
offered by companies such as Ensequence that specialize in interactive
TV development tools?

Thomson: Our tools aren't really in the same category as those offered
by Ensequence. Ensequence has developed a robust drag-and-drop
tool--a visually rich environment--with which to build applications. At
TVWorks we really build just the foundation or the first step. Now, a
Web developer who's very familiar with building Web sites would be
able to take our tools and build an ETV application quite easily. But
they're not targeted at a broader audience--so, for example, to someone
like an advertiser, who would need something much simpler in order to
build or modify an advertising app. That's where a company like
Ensequence would come in.

[itvt]: So, in other words, using your tools would require understanding
code?

Thomson: Yes. It's pretty analogous to building Web sites in
HTML--except, of course, that the code you'd be using would be XML.
Developing in XML is very similar to developing in HTML. Content
companies that have content-management systems that output HTML
for PC Web sites or for mobiles--those systems could output ETV just
as easily. That, of course, is one of the great strengths of ETV: it's very
compatible with the content-management systems that are out there
already.

[itvt]: And, of course, with ETV, you can take advantage of RSS feeds
and things like that, right?

Thomson: Definitely. You can also do all that using Java as the client
piece of your app: I don't mean to suggest that ETV is the only way to
bring a Web app-type solution to TV. It's just one of the simpler ways
to do it. If you want something more complex as the engine on the
set-top box for your app, then you can build the client side in Java.

So there are many options and tools available to developers who want
to bring applications to cable television. Of course there are certain
things that are specific to TV--like embedding an application in the
broadcast video--and there are specific technologies to address those
use cases. But in general, the developers that are out there today,
building thousands of apps for PC and mobile, will have an easy time
building apps for cable, because the tools are very similar to the tools
they're using today.

[itvt]: Now, if the cable industry succeeds in interesting the many
developers out there, who've previously focused on Web apps, in
developing for the TV...well, there are literally thousands, tens of
thousands of Web developers out there. Is itaas ready to ramp up for
the kind of interest there could be in developing interactive apps for
cable if the efforts of TVWorks and others are successful?

Rustagi: Absolutely. This is something that we've been thinking about
for quite a while, both internally and in our discussions with CableLabs
and our various customers who are involved in these initiatives. If there
is a huge groundswell of interest in developing ETV and tru2way
applications for cable, what we envision happening is some kind of
mechanism, such as a portal, where these developers' apps could be
showcased and tested. And then the operators could pick and choose
which ones they want to deploy. So certainly the possibility of a huge
increase in interest in developing applications for cable is something
we've taken into consideration in our corporate roadmap. Of course,
that would be a great problem to have: having to deal with thousands of
developers writing applications for the cable environment! But it's
definitely something that we're taking into account in our planning.

[itvt]: Presumably, though, it would be pretty hard to create a test
environment that would take into account all the quirks of each cable
system in the US...

Rustagi: Absolutely. Even within each MSO, there are permutations
that are unique to a particular cable site. But it is possible to create a
test environment that will handle a majority of those permutations.
Certainly, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and some of the other MSO's
have very extensive and elaborate labs internally that emulate their
systems' unique permutations and combinations. And we at itaas--even
today--have a lot of the necessary equipment and infrastructure in place
for doing this, and we will gear up to whatever is required. Now, I don't
think it's possible right now to anticipate absolutely every single
permutation in every single system, but we are definitely well
positioned to move in that direction. And because of that, we are often
tapped by MSO's to do testing--and, in some cases, certification--for
applications that have been developed for their systems.

Thomson: I would add to that that, with the convergence of ETV,
tru2way and DOCSIS for TV, the profile of the various MSOs'
platforms will become more unified. It will make development and
testing a lot easier and faster.

[itvt]: Do either of you have any thoughts on the applicability of
ETV/EBIF for IPTV environments?

Thomson: I believe it can make that transition. Obviously, the standard
was defined for cable, but it's really primarily a video technology, and
it could potentially make the jump into any other method of distributing
video.

[itvt]: One last question--for Vibha: you test, and are therefore familiar
with, a lot of different technologies. How significant do you feel that
ETV is?

Rustagi: Very significant. It means that developers can count on having
their applications accessible to a huge footprint of cable set-top boxes,
which obviously is very important to those developers from a business
and ROI standpoint. From the advertising perspective, it addresses the
traditional problem of "How many different versions of my interactive
ad must I create, and how many systems will it be able to run on?"--it
makes it possible to distribute an interactive ad to the entire cable
footprint. And, as Greg was just saying, it makes developing--and
testing--interactive TV applications for cable much, much easier, and
allows the industry to draw on this huge base of developers. It means
that we've finally reached the point where interactive TV applications
can become commonplace. So we're very excited about it.

itaas

TVWorks

Next Live Broadcast of [itvt]'s Talk Radio Show


The next live broadcast of "The TV of Tomorrow Show with Tracy
Swedlow" is scheduled for Tuesday, June 3rd at 10:30AM
Pacific/1:30PM Eastern
. Steven Roberts, SVP of new media and
business development at DirecTV, will provide an update on that
company's interactive TV offerings.

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