As OpenCable-enabled hardware and software development accelerated in 2007, it was time for the cable operators to take the initiative in practical implementation of these technologies.

Apart from complying with the Federal Communications Commission ban on deploying set-top boxes with integrated security beyond July 2007, which involves the removable security elements of OpenCable, individual cable operators have moved ahead on the middleware and applications-oriented components of what traditionally was called the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), but which as of early January for the consumer electronics industry (if not yet for this article or the cable technology community) goes by the name of tru2way

Cox tried OCAP in Scientific Atlanta and Motorola headends. Comcast began testing OCAP-enabled set-tops in a number of markets, including Denver, Philadelphia and Boston.

By the end of 2007, a clear leader emerged from the pack. The title of OCAP trailblazer belonged to Time Warner Cable.

"We’ve deployed well over 200,000 [OCAP-enabled set-top] boxes across the country," Senior Director of Set-top Box Software Development for Time Warner Cable’s Advanced Technology Group, Sherisse Hawkins, said in December.

According to Hawkins, each new box that Time Warner deployed would be OCAP enabled. Also, any Time Warner customer electing to replace their current HD/DVR box could trade the device for an updated, two-way communication capable machine. Navigation first Hawkins said the reasoning behind the deployment push was simple: Time Warner focused on the needs of its customers. The company asked, "What can we do to improve our customers’ lives overall?"

Time Warner’s first OCAP-enabled answer to that question appeared to be its proprietary Navigator application.

The importance of an effective navigation tool is no secret. Earlier in 2007, Charter‘s plans to conduct OCAP trials in key markets were delayed because a fully functioning version of the Charter’s own navigational software reportedly wasn’t available. Time Warner didn’t suffer that holdup.

"Our focus was on Navigator," Hawkins said.

In addition to Navigator, which corporate marketing describes as "much more than just a program listing," Time Warner offers customers expanded two-way functionalities like caller ID via television and Start Over – the service that allows viewers to restart programs already in progress.

"We always have new and cool things in the works," Hawkins said. "OCAP is a platform we can evolve from." Testing, testing Among those companies helping Time Warner develop "new and cool" applications making use of the OCAP toolbox is Mixed Signals, a company that designs monitoring products for digital media.

"Time Warner Cable is on the bleeding edge of this technology," Eric Conley, president and CEO of Mixed Signals, said of the operator’s push to implement OpenCable applications.

It’s a technology that could spur competition among service providers. "OCAP allows operators to offer extras that customers don’t have to pay for," Conley said.

Conley’s firm provides diagnostics for Time Warner, including a real-time window on any issues that may arise with regard to OCAP carousel management.

"Time Warner is focused on initial deployment," Conley said. "Most of the issues they are going to have are because they are in rollout."

According to Conley, operators such as Time Warner may suffer small service glitches as they migrate network functions to the new carousel.

"[Operators] can’t move everything," Conley said. "But they will move as much as possible because OCAP offers more efficient delivery, timing and [allocation of] bandwidth."

It is those kinds of problems that operators seek out and remedy in the testing process. According to Hawkins, CableLabs should be recognized for its roll in orchestrating the testing process.

"CableLabs has been instrumental in testing," Hawkins said.

Hawkins’ sentiment is understandable. CableLabs was, after all, there from the beginning. OCAP’s origins Back in 1996, when the FCC first proposed that integrated security would be removed from set-top boxes, the goal of such idealistic, though seemingly impracticable, rulemaking seemed clear-cut: The FCC sought to discourage the duopoly Motorola and Scientific Atlanta held over the cable industry and transform the set-top box to a consumer electronics product.

By allowing customers to buy a generic set-top box with removable security, cable operators would save the expense of leasing boxes and reduce the number of proprietary set-top related truck rolls, while customers could save on monthly fees and travel with their devices.

But who would make this generic device? What middleware would it contain? Where would the standards come from?

The OpenCable initiative, managed by CableLabs, began in 1997. Its mandate was to help the cable industry deploy interactive services. Like several other CableLabs projects, OpenCable provided a set of industry specifications, all in furtherance of achieving this goal of interactive service delivery.

The OpenCable platform was meant to serve as "an engine for innovation." It would create an open and ubiquitous middleware layer to enable blended applications. Hardware specifications would describe one-way and two-way digital cable-ready "host" devices interoperable with cable systems throughout the United States, creating a retail solution for consumer electronics products for cable. Software specifications would solve the problem of proprietary operating system software, creating a common platform for interactive TV applications and services. The rise of third parties After a few sputtering stops and starts over the course of a decade, in 2007 OCAP finally began to have an impact on the market.

As was originally intended, third-party technology companies pushed ahead of cable operators in delivering OCAP-compliant applications and hardware. Competition spurred tangible innovations. Those innovations were on display at CableLabs CableNET showcase in 2007.

Advanced Micro Devices unveiled an OpenCable 2.0 hardware platform for development of integrated bi-directional digital cable-ready television. The company demonstrated an AMD-based digital TV prototype running a third-party OCAP implementation.

Navic Networks developed addressable advertising, enhanced TV and Reveal – a commercially available addressable, customizable on-demand navigation solution for existing cable and new OCAP set-top boxes.

Sofia Digital released the Backstage Browser Platform for OCAP, an XHTML microbrowser running on top of OCAP as well as its Benchmark System for OCAP, for testing the performance and features of OCAP set-top boxes.

UniSoft Corp./Strategy & Technology touted the latest version of the TSBroadcaster DSM-CC object carousel generator, OCAP encoder and play-out system.

Samsung Electronics demonstrated its SMT-H3050 OCAP high definition (HD) set-top, a device it advertised as the first OpenCable HD set-top sold into North America. It enabled HD viewing while running bound and unbound applications. Samsung provided that technology for the Time Warner set-top boxes that began rolling out last year. Set-top flat top But can Samsung – or any set-top provider – expect long term, sky high revenue increases based on the sale of these new devices, either to cable operators or cable customers directly? Late last year, that scenario appeared unlikely.

In December 2007, the Dell’Oro Group released a statement reporting its findings that the worldwide set-top box market had "contracted 2 percent on a sequential basis in the third quarter" of 2007. According to Dell’Oro, despite growth in the IPTV and satellite set-top box market, sales were not sufficient to offset the decline in the cable market.

Dell’Oro further revealed that satellite set-top box market revenues grew faster than unit shipments in the third quarter "as consumers continued to focus on high definition and DVR products and services."

What was selling the fastest? IPTV. Dell’Oro said the IPTV set-top market grew in the mid-teens on a sequential basis on both a revenue and unit shipment perspective during the third quarter of 2007. Looking ahead So what is going to pique consumer interest in the OCAP set-top? Will it be some new application like the ability to order take-out through your TV set? (The Brits can do it already.)

Asked what she perceived to be the next big application customers might clamor for, or that operators might seek to develop, Hawkins joked that she didn’t have a crystal ball.

"We have a road map, but we are looking at applications from other companies," Hawkins said. "We are always encouraging other companies to do development."

If they have a crystal ball, Hawkins said she’d love to hear about it.

One company offering an early clue to the new hardware direction might be TiVo. TiVo is taking full advantage of market analysis such as the Dell’Oro announcement. Consumers want HD DVRs; some also want two-way cable service. TiVO recently said that by the end of 2008, TiVo customers will have their cake and eat it, too.

At the end of 2007, TiVo announced that the company had come to an agreement with the cable industry that would provide a "blueprint for a retail TiVo DVR" based on the OpenCable application platform. According to TiVo, that device would have "full two-way cable service functionality."

TiVo posits that it can deliver viewer access to cable video on demand (VOD), pay-per-view (PPV) and other two-way-communication services that TiVo users had previously been unable to enjoy. TiVo said this new device could be a complete "substitute for a cable operator set-top box." The company predicts the boxes will hit retail shelves by late 2008.

Will the operator-issued set-top box really be a thing of the past? Will the long-standing American tradition of ritualistically receiving and returning the cable box upon changing locations become a relic in the next decade? It is possible.

Until then, TWC and the cable operators that follow in its path will continue to equip, refine and deploy the latest in two-way, OCAP (pardon me, tru2way) enabled technology. Jennifer Rinaldi is associate editor of Communications Technology. Reach her at jrinaldi@accessintel.com.

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