For some reason, consumers accept the geekiest names for their electronic toys. TV sets were followed by VCRs, which were followed by DVDs, while in the background there was DOCSIS, CableLabs‘ unabashedly nerdy way of spelling out the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification that would eventually become synonymous with high-speed data when you walked into Best Buy.

So there’s no reason to think that within the next year the terms IPTV and EBIF won’t become part of the vernacular. IPTV, being adopted primarily by phone companies is pretty easy to understand: it’s television over the Internet – although, of course, the "public" Internet never comes into play. But EBIF? That’s a little tougher. Cable is betting that it can make EBIF – or at least what it stands for, Enhanced Television Binary Interchange Format – a part of the U.S. lexicon of interactive TV applications. If EBIF doesn’t take off, there’s always the ETV (Enhanced TV) derivation on which to fall back.

BigBand Networks and TVWorks, the joint venture between Comcast Communications and Cox Communications to develop next-generation interactive cable technology and services, are doing their part to make ETV happen. They’ve participated in interoperability testing at CableLabs where BigBand expanded the functionality of its Broadband Multimedia-Service Router (BMR) so interactive advertising, TV-based e-commerce and other interactive programming can be inserted into MPEG streams within the EBIF specs. Competitive offering? While the casual observer might see this as either a competitive offering to IPTV, which is expected to be replete with interactivity, or as a catch-up by cable telephone companies that are gathering a big share of spotlight with their IPTV rollouts and better press relations, it’s actually neither, said Greg Thomson, senior vice president of product management-business development in the TVWorks Applications Division, although honestly he didn’t address the press relations part of the equation.

"(ETV) is a little bit different than IPTV in the sense that it’s not about delivering video; its about delivering applications inside of video," Thomson said. "The (EBIF) standard covers a range of applications from synchronized programming like voting along with a show to enhanced advertising to virtual channels. You can launch VOD from these applications so you can enhance the VOD experience for consumers using this technology."

The telcos continue to rap cable’s limited bandwidth – and frankly, anything is limited compared to a direct fiber connection – that they maintain restricts the amount of interactivity cable operators can deliver. While not exactly sending cable execs screaming to the exits looking for golden parachutes as the telcos march to center stage, there’s enough truth in the IPTV claims to make it imperative that cable juice up its video play. Competition … seriously "They take the competition very seriously," said Thomson, who emphasized that he couldn’t officially speak for the MSOs. "The cable companies (are) trying to establish a single environment so that applications can be developed quickly and easily and deployed across a national footprint (to) compete more effectively with things like IPTV, which will have a more uniform way for applications to be developed and delivered."

The big distinction is that cable is continuing its love affair with MPEG video transport while some IPTV content, not all, is also open to other video formats such as Windows Media.

"ETV is an application that is bound specifically to a video stream. If it’s an MPEG-2 stream, that’s what we’re basing it on," said Paul Delzio, senior director of business development-video business at BigBand. "We’re not biased or restricted by any of the content sources or content format. This is more about the application of offering interactivity to a subscriber … whatever the programmer feels they want to insert in their programming to make it more valuable."

The goal is for the consumer to use a remote control like a mouse; add the lean-forward experience to lean-back TV and make TV interactive without making it the Internet.

"How the content is brought in and digitized and distributed doesn’t change at all," Delzio said. Community participation Speaking of content, the telcos – or at least some of their vendors – also see IPTV as a format that encourages community participation. Too many people know how to get videos on the Internet, so it’s a short leap to shove these amateur videos to the local system for distribution on an IPTV channel.

"That’s another whole subject, but it’s something that cable is working towards just to be able to take other formats of video and be able to transfer them to the VOD format that exists on cable today," said Thomson.

For now, though, the laser focus for TVWorks – and presumably its parent companies – is enhanced TV that complies with EBIF. Neither exec was wiling to say when that would be showing up in consumer living rooms.

"It would be misleading to say when it’s going to happen," Delzio averred. "It’s really up to the operators when they want to go into certain limited market trials or certain market deployments. It’s much more mature than it was a year ago."

So’s IPTV. – Jim Barthold

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