After many false starts, interactive TV (iTV) will become reality for millions of cable subscribers around the world in 2009. Based on various press articles and company earnings statements, cable operators will continue to roll out tru2way and enhanced TV (ETV) platforms to more than 20 million set-top boxes with interactive capabilities slated for deployment by the end of 2009.

There is, however, a great deal of debate over which platform works best for specific applications. Application developers, including advertisers and programmers, may have to choose between tru2way or enhanced TV binary interchange format (EBIF)-based ETV platforms for each application they intend to roll out.

This article explores the differences and similarities between tru2way and ETV. It examines topics such as suitability of each platform for specific applications and development criteria of each platform, including complexity of development, ease of deployment, cost of rollout, time to market and future roadmap.

tru2way: advanced functionality

tru2way is the consumer-facing brand name for a specification previously known as OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform) from CableLabs. At the core of tru2way is a Java-based middleware software layer for an OpenCable host device (next-generation set-top boxes, TV sets, DVD players, and other home entertainment devices).

One formal goal of tru2way middleware is to enable the developers of iTV services and applications to design products that will run successfully on any cable system in North America, independent of set-top, TV receiver hardware or operating system software choices.

The tru2way middleware ("stack") is typically implemented as a Java virtual machine and a set of libraries running on top of proprietary operating systems and hardware. tru2way-based applications, including the guide or navigator, are written in Java and must adhere to the specifications.

tru2way applications can be bound, meaning they are delivered with linear or on-demand programming, or the applications can be unbound, which refers to applications that execute independently of the content being watched. tru2way does not have a presentation layer (for example, HTML), so an application developer must use Java libraries (HAVi/AWT) to implement much of the user interface in addition to the core application logic. The tru2way specification consists of core functionality (currently version 1.0.1 and draft 1.1) with several extensions to add functionality such as digital video recorder (DVR), home networking, and multi-screen, among others.

Some of today’s interactive guides, including those from GuideWorks, Time Warner Cable, Cox with NDS, and Macrovision (Aptiv), are based on tru2way specs, bringing advanced functionality and robust user experience to consumers. Sony, Panasonic, Samsung Electronic, Digeo, LG Electronic, Funai Electric and Intel are major consumer electronics (CE) companies that have signed on to support the tru2way rollout with top cable operators.

ETV/EBIF: larger base

ETV, often referred to as EBIF, is another CableLabs specification that is designed to encourage a nationwide rollout of interactive applications that are bound to programming that the viewer is watching. The specification also specifies unbound applications to a certain degree. One of the key goals for ETV specifications is to be able to deploy applications across a majority of existing digital set-top boxes.

ETV user agent, the software responsible for running ETV applications, is an application that runs alongside the existing middleware platforms and guides, including tru2way.

Applications available for ETV platforms include caller ID, server-based games, request for information (RFI) applications such as "send me product brochures" or "download directions to my phone," remind-and-record applications, news/weather, and more.

Tech ops

There is currently some debate over whether services enabled by ETV can also be considered as part of the tru2way platform. It is likely that this will happen because the average consumer will not notice the difference between tru2way and ETV applications.

The debate over which platform to use resembles the "tastes great, less filling" argument from beer commercials of old. Both platforms offer great benefits that help the developer, programmer and cable operator communities determine the platform that best fits their needs.

As specified in Table 1, when comparing the features of each platform, both tru2way and ETV enable developers to create applications and services with the proverbial "write once, run everywhere" promise. In the case of tru2way, "everywhere" is limited to newer host devices (TV sets, set-top boxes, DVD players) and others on which the tru2way stack is available. Currently, there are close to 4 million such devices in the North American market.

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ETV, on the other hand, may be viable on roughly 40 million existing digital set-top boxes (based on the NCTA’s latest number of digital video customers), including the "2000" series of legacy boxes – albeit with some limits, especially for rich graphics.

Application variables

As application developers, operators and technology providers decide between one or both platforms in developing interactive applications, they should consider many different variables, including:

• Functionality/feasibility
• Market reach
• Development complexity
• Time to market

Functionality/feasibility

Table 2 and Table 3 detail the functionality offered in ETV/EBIF and tru2way platforms. If the application is a bound one, ETV must be considered. For unbound applications, tru2way is the leading choice, but there are exceptions to both.

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In general, tru2way contains a superset of ETV functionality, so applications implemented on ETV can always be implemented using tru2way. However, because of the complexity of development and the potential reach of number of subscribers, it may make sense to choose ETV in the immediate term and tru2way for long-term applications.

Market reach

To reach a maximum number of viewers, ETV wins because of its support of millions of legacy set-top boxes, assuming the target cable operator will deploy the user agent. ETV should be a frontrunner for content creators, but in many cases, the ETV application may not provide user interaction and other rich features of tru2way.

Complexity

As illustrated in Figure 1, there are many different variables that go into the deployment of iTV. They include application engine, guides, application selection, platform, and set-top box.

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For application developers and programmers, the complexity of development can be significant. Much of it depends on engineering talent, availability of tools, research and testing capabilities and resources, certification process, and specific cable operator integration needs and requirements. Application developers also often find themselves needing such set-top box and back-office knowledge and support.

The good news is that there are many development programs, resources and tools available today that streamline the process and provide consultative support and software development kits to ease the complexity. Cable operators face their own issues when deploying interactive applications, such as cost-related and management matters.

In order to reduce complexity and cost, many application developers are choosing a template-based approach, which offers the ability to create, test and certify an application template once and then "skin it" using a different set of graphics and data. This approach, while technically appealing, is not conducive to fostering (much needed) creativity and new ideas. Visual programming and code generation tools, while appealing for simple applications, often break down when developing complex applications.

As platforms become mature and interpretation/implementation of specifications gravitates to a common base, life may become easier for developers; however, this is likely to take some time.

Time to market

tru2way and ETV rollout plans vary according to each cable operator. Twenty percent of all new cable set-tops will be tru2way-enabled by June 2009, based on commitments from the top six MSOs.

Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Cox are all planning widespread ETV or tru2way deployments this year. Other operators, both in the United States and in Canada, may stay on the sideline, especially with tru2way deployments, but consumers’ demand for tru2way may change market dynamics.

More competitive

As the industry reaches a broad footprint for iTV applications, both ETV and tru2way are making great strides this year. While there are broad similarities in both ETV and tru2way platforms such as "write once, deploy everywhere," support for VOD, bound and unbound applications and application development evolution, there are distinct differences.

A key question for cable operators, programmers and developers is which platform most closely aligns with their business models and audience-reach objectives. The decision also hinges on a host of technical considerations around the type and the functionality desired for every specific application. The ETV and tru2way platforms are designed to make that high degree of complexity more manageable.

The industry is also working to attract developer talent and foster more engaging applications through developer programs that lower the barriers to entry by lowering costs and equipment required for cable application development. New developer talent is just one way the industry can bring more content appeal and accessibility, enhancing competitiveness in the home, across multiple platforms.

Jatin Desai is chief technology officer for itaas.

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