A middleware standard—the goal of CableLabs’ OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP)—could be emerging from theory into practice.

"I don’t think we’ll see any massive deployment," Mike Hayashi, Time Warner Cable senior vice president for subscriber technologies and advanced engineering, says. "But I think this is the year we will start to see OCAP showing up."

Hayashi says the logical place to start is the current navigation systems—TV Guide, Pioneer’s Passport, Scientific-Atlanta’s Resident Application (SARA). "The first application would be to write those navigation systems to OCAP," he says.

Don Dulchinos, CableLabs’ vice president of advanced platforms and services, has a similar message. "MSOs are telling their guide vendors to port their applications to OCAP," he says.

Under a closed or proprietary set-top environment, third-party services can be added only if they’re made compatible with the set-top’s software. Such efforts delay product launches and add costs and complexities that have become legendary.

At SCTE’s Emerging Technologies conference in Miami, for instance, Charter CTO Steve Silva noted that TV Guide alone is involved in 25 different integration initiatives in the cable industry. "We’ve got to simplify that," he said.

To be sure, adopting a standard is itself a complicated process. "A long-term goal for the industry"—that’s how John Hildebrand, Cox vice president of multimedia technology, describes OCAP.

"In the shorter term, we want to see a standard on the path to OCAP, but which we could see implemented sooner," Hildebrand says.

To that end, Cox is testing Liberate’s Java-compliant software on its S-A platform. Java serves as a foundation for both OCAP 1.0 and the Digital Video Broadcasting Group (DVB) multimedia home platform (MHP). It works on the horizontal, operating-system level, with access to the central processing unit and underlying hardware.

CableLabs deepened its debt to MHP in its release of OCAP 2.0 last summer, leading middleware players such as OpenTV and Canal+ to conduct "gap analyses" to compare their platforms with the DVB-MHP basis of the new spec.

As they align toward OCAP and otherwise continue with product development, middleware suppliers themselves may become moving targets. Cox, for instance, expects to keep Liberate in the lab until its next major revision is ready mid-year.

For its part, Comcast has considered several approaches. It has been trialing a TV Guide-integrated version of Liberate on its Motorola platform in its White Marsh, Md., lab. It has deployed WorldGate-enabled services in two systems in Alabama. And it has considered what Microsoft has to offer.

In the absence of a middleware, Comcast plowed ahead with a massive video-on-demand (VOD) integration effort in 2001, a project that helped to create the list of TVGuide initiatives that Silva alluded to in Miami.

Middleware does not banish integration. An MSO such as Insight, which adopted Liberate three years ago, for instance, must still keep all the pieces of its interactive platform in line with software updates and bug fixes. The theory, however, is that middleware enables a more robust suite of services, and a standard platform would do so even better.

In practice, middleware suppliers have had a hard time finding profits in the North American cable market. And some operators have deployed interactivity without middleware, per se. Rogers uses Wink (now part of OpenTV), as does Charter, where it serves as the platform for Digeo’s ITV basic service.

Tony Wasilewski, chief scientist for S-A’s subscriber networks, makes this point differently. "There are actually two kinds of middleware applications coming, namely ‘unbound’ and ‘bound.’"

"’Unbound’ is what most people think of as middleware; these are stand-alone applications that aren’t connected to any particular programming channel. However, ‘bound middleware’ is tied to specific channels; think of it as the add-ons for enhanced TV, but in interactive form."

Jonathan Tomes is executive editor for Communications Technology. Email him at [email protected]. James Careless is a contributing editor.

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