2010 is the year of interactive television, thanks to the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) specification that fueled industry-wide alignment resulting in a common cable platform. EBIF is a ubiquitous service layer that will become the linchpin to successfully delivering advanced services across devices.

EBIF is to TV what HTML was to the Web. The cable industry knew it had to deliver a common platform to shield third parties from exotic box, MSO infrastructure and vendor differences. And it also knew the common platform would need to run across the full range of set-top boxes to provide the reach necessary for ad-supported models. Out of this great need, EBIF was born.

CableLabs created the EBIF specs that defines the signaling mechanisms, messaging protocols, set-top-box capabilities and operational guidelines that, when combined, produce a common platform able to run across heterogeneous set-top boxes and systems.

“Many have come to realize that building a commercially viable User Agent is a challenge.“

The EBIF spec initially was intended for bound synchronous applications used by advertisers and programmers to add interactivity to their video content. Bound applications are delivered in conjunction with the video programming and typically deliver contextual interactivity that further immerses the viewer to drive ratings and engagement. Fully 60 percent of viewers said in a recent survey they would rather vote for their favorite “American Idol” contestant using their remotes. This is a function supported by EBIF, and it is — by definition — bound, in this case, to “American Idol” programming on the Fox Network.

However, the benefits of a common platform quickly spread to unbound, competitive MSO applications. Unbound applications are launched by the consumer through a menu selection or a button on the remote, and they can deliver a new breed of TV apps that provide convenient cross-platform features or customized guides that give greater control of the TV experience. In the same recent survey done for FourthWall Media, more viewers indicated they would prefer to access “Yellow Pages on TV” with their remotes. “Yellow Pages on TV” from FourthWall Media is deployed in a number of markets with actual usage tracking with reported consumer demand.

Whether delivered bound or unbound, an EBIF app runs on set-top boxes enabled with an EBIF User Agent. This User Agent interprets the incoming EBIF app and displays the appropriate images, messages and navigational elements to the TV screen. It also performs associated functions based on viewer selections. It’s the job of the User Agent to faithfully implement the EBIF spec across box types to provide a common experience and to shield the box from application failures. Given the resource constraints of deployed hardware, this requires fully tested, powerful, fault-tolerant, compact software.

This all sounds great, but what’s the catch?

The catch is that if you’re building an app and you want it to run across the full U.S. footprint, you need to stick with the EBIF spec. Operators have extensions to their platforms – extensions that implement features beyond the EBIF spec – and these extensions are not common across operators. When people talk about User Agent differences, they either are referring to a User Agent that isn’t EBIF-compliant or they’re referring to extensions that should be considered off limits to the majority of EBIF applications.

Many have come to realize that building a commercially viable User Agent is a challenge. User Agent suppliers must support the full and latest EBIF specs across the full range of set-top boxes, and they must protect the boxes from application failures.

Ellen Dudar is chief product officer and co-founder of FourthWall Media. Contact her at edudar@fourthwallmedia.tv.

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