When it comes to interactive television (iTV), there’s no denying that direct broadcast satellite (DBS) has been hogging the spotlight. OpenTV’s interactive TV games channel, PlayJam, is only the latest in a string of applications that EchoStar’s “dish interactive TV” is offering to its subs. Broaden the definition and geographical scope of interactivity, and DBS looks stronger still. EchoStar, for instance, has sold more than a million digital video recorders (DVRs), and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB in the UK is offering iTV games and DVR service to its 10 million subs under the ‘Sky+’ and ‘Sky Gamepad’ brand names. In contrast, the North American cable TV industry lags behind. Why? “MSOs initially focused on VOD (video-on-demand) as their killer ITV application, on the grounds that it would be unmatchable by satellite,” explains Jonathan Symonds, ICTV’s vice president of business development. MSOs undeniably have led with VOD. “VOD is really our major iTV offering,” says Michael Lee, vice president of product management for Canada’s Rogers Cable. But Rogers has the ability to support enhanced TV functions offered by its program providers, as well, he adds. Outside the VOD box Cablevision also has ventured outside the VOD box. At the Western Show, Cablevision Cable and Communications President Tom Rutledge said his subscribers had access to multiple camera angle options for sporting events and traffic reports, as well as interactive games. Charter Communications also has pushed hard on this front. To date, over one million Charter households can receive iTV gaming, news, sports, entertainment and weather channels over their Motorola DCT-2000 and various Scientific-Atlanta Explorer set-top boxes. “Charter has always believed that iTV would be an important play,” says Jeff Jay, Charter’s vice president of business technology. “This is why we offer enhanced TV interactivity for our subscribers to use, plus ‘virtual channels’ created on our set-top boxes using OpenTV’s Wink software and content aggregated for us by Digeo.” In addition, Charter Communications is about to pull ahead of DBS via Digeo’s new Moxi Media Center system. Moxi’s $500 BMC9012 set-top (being manufactured by Motorola) is an HDTV-capable DVR system with an 80 gigabyte hard drive that is fully integrated with the MSO’s VOD and pay-per-view solution. It also can be scaled up to handle music jukebox functions, gaming, photo-sharing and home networking. Better yet, the under-$700 Moxi BMC9022D set-top supports two TVs; one in the main viewing area, and the other connected via the subscriber’s coax in a second “satellite” room. “You can have all the Moxi functions that you enjoy in your main TV room in a second room, except for HD,” says Gina Bender, Digeo’s director of corporate communications. “The second TV plays back in SD, which is more than good enough for most consumers.” The BMC9022D’s two-TV functionality restores cable’s longstanding advantage over satellite, namely: the ability to support multiple TV outlets with a single subscription. This more than anything else, might make Moxi a DBS-beater on the DVR front. To date, Charter has ordered 100,000 Moxis from Digeo, while Adelphia has ordered 25,000. “We believe that dual-tuner, high-definition DVR systems, like Moxi, are essential in the increasingly competitive marketplace,” says Doug Ike, Adelphia’s vice president of advanced video engineering and development. Time will tell if these efforts are enough for cable to overcome DBS’s lead. But one thing is certain: the bandwidth that gives MSOs the ability to outperform DBS on VOD could do the same for interactivity. —James Careless The scheduled address at this year’s Emerging Technology conference from RealNetworks founder, CEO and Chairman Rob Glaser has raised the question of how the company intends to work with the cable industry. The most obvious way is for cable to use RealNetworks’ extensive collection of programming to build portals, the company’s V.P. of Marketing Dan Sheeran, says. While the traditional portals still serve as home base to the lion’s share of Internet users, the industry is keen to challenge them with their own brands. After all, cable is at heart a programming business. It seeks to evolve in much the same way it did in the 1980s—from a purveyor of other programmers’ products to a powerful programmer itself, Sheeran says. In addition, RealNetworks—and Microsoft, which offers many analogous products and services—can be a technology partner in the specialized world of streaming media. They can come to operators either as an aggregator or a provider or as a technology platform provider for operators who want to offer their own programming services,” says Michael Harris, the president of Kinetic Strategies. RealNetworks’ content offerings include the RealOne Rhapsody music service and RealOne Arcade games. Compression and DRM On the technical side, RealNetworks offers the Helix Universal Server and Content ingestion and management product. Perhaps the more interesting offerings are in compression and digital rights management. Sheeran says that moving picture experts group (MPEG)-2, which the industry is using now, is “long in the tooth.” Options for moving beyond include MPEG-4, RealVideo 10 and Microsoft’s Windows Media 9. Another issue for Real is intellectual property. For this, RealNetworks is offering its Helix digital rights management (DRM) platform. The goal is to enable subscribers to move content through their home networks in a way that protects the rights of the content owner. In light of Time Warner Cable’s announced use of the RealVideo 10 platform and the Helix software in the upgrade of its Road Runner service, Sheeran’s message appears to be getting through. Yet its battle with Microsoft perhaps has only begun. “One difference is that RealNetworks is more acquisitive,” Harris says. “Microsoft is a bit more wary of heading down that path because of the view about its market power.” —Carl Weinshenk

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