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The July 10, 2008 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Cable Show 2008: Time for tru2way

Tablet in New Orleans --> Click for larger pictureThe 2008 Cable Show was back in New Orleans and it was great to witness how much of the core city has rebounded from 2005's devastating Hurricane Katrina. Many cable industry members came to the show a few days early, so they could participate in projects such as planting trees, donating books, painting schoolrooms, building playgrounds and raising money for the re-vitalization of New Orleans and especially for its children. You can see this in action at the Cable Show website.

As we were making our plans to go to New Orleans for the show, we decided to start a few days earlier at the tru2way Developers Conference. Tru2way is a marketing and branding term for the software platform that will enable cable companies and other interactive TV service and application developers to "write (interactive applications) once, run anywhere (any CATV system that supports the specification)". It solves the problem of the incompatibility of different cable equipment moving from system to system and its interaction with consumer electronics equipment. Once it is widely deployed, it will create a national footprint for creators of interactive services to develop products that will work on cable systems in nearly every U.S. market.

The tru2way name superseded the earlier terminology "OpenCable Application Platform”, widely known as OCAP. This name change hasn't entirely permeated--during the conference, one moderator threatened a shock would be applied to the seat of each panelist who slipped and said "OCAP" rather than "tru2way".

Since the tru2way Developers Conference was promoted as being for "Java and iTV developers" and "iTV technology companies" we expected to learn what developers would like to know about developing innovative applications for this exciting new platform.

In the course of our careers we've both spent quite a bit of time as developers, so we went to the conference with our developer hats on.

We came away believing that many consumer homes will soon have tru2way-capable devices, and that tru2way has the potential to dramatically alter the TV experience. While we were disappointed that the cable industry wasn't ready to answer some key questions developers would have, we reluctantly recognized the need for the industry to take a "walk before you run" approach to this complex new platform.

Tru2way Platform Footprint

One of the first questions any developer would ask is the projected "footprint" for the platform: how many devices in how many homes will be able to run tru2way applications over time. While we didn't get any projections for the growth of the footprint, we did get some sense for the growth path.

Tru2way will be deployed in many different consumer devices, including

  • Digital cable set-top boxes and Digital video recorders (DVRs) provided by cable operators;
  • Digital cable set-top boxes and DVRs created by consumer electronics companies and sold at retail;
  • Digital TV sets with tru2way built in; and
  • PCs equipped with uni- and bi-directional cable receivers.

Many of the more-advanced set-top boxes and DVRs that cable operators have deployed in the past few years are "tru2way-capable" -- that is, when the cable plant is ready, the operator can upgrade these devices to tru2way by a software download. The vast majority of set-top boxes now in customer homes are not capable of running tru2way; operators will be reluctant to replace them before the end of their useful life. We were told that operators are now deploying mostly tru2way-capable devices. With consumers rushing out to buy digital TV sets, and many installing tru2way-capable HDTV set-top boxes, we'll see lot of them in the living room over time.

Of the US cable operators, Time Warner Cable appears to be furthest along--both in enabling its systems for tru2way and in deploying tru2way-capable set-top boxes. They support tru2way in about 40 percent of their footprint, and have deployed more than 1 million tru2way boxes so far. In the last session of the conference, one of the speakers said Comcast will have 95% of its households enabled for tru2way by the end of 2009, and we were told that Comcast is installing mostly tru2way-capable set top boxes. James Kelso of Cox said "tru2way is the flat-out basis for our future." Observing that Java underlies tru2way, he added "it's very gratifying to see Java in the phone, the TV, and the set-top."

After many years of fighting with the cable industry, the consumer electronics industry also appears to have embraced tru2way. Several of the major manufacturers have been working with the cable industry for some time; after the show, three of the largest--Panasonic, Sony and Samsung--announced they had signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOU) with the cable industry for deployment of tru2way equipment.

Paul Liao,  Panasonic's CTO --> Click for larger picturePanasonic's CTO Paul Liao gave the opening keynote address at the tru2way conference. Under the heading "consumers have been waiting..." he traced the timeline of tru2way starting in 1997. He said this is a new technology that "needs lots of people to work together": the consumer electronics makers, the head-end makers (Motorola and Cisco), and the cable MSOs. He said he was very enthusiastic "We gotta make this happen."

Panasonic AnyPlay P-DVR --> Click for larger pictureLiao talked about and showed pictures of three tru2way devices Panasonic has been working on with Comcast: a cable set-top box with a DVR; 42" and 50" models of the Viera plasma TV; and the innovative AnyPlay portable DVR which operates as a set-top box when it's docked and as a portable player with a built-in hard drive and screen when undocked. These were all announced at CES in early January, and he promised they will be available on the market before the end of this year.

On the show floor, Samsung showed us the tru2way-capable set-top boxes and TV sets they expect to ship before yearend.

Related Platforms

Bill Sheppard, Sun Microsystems Chief Digital Media Officer, pointed out to us that tru2way is neither a new nor unique platform. Rather, it is closely related to other interactive TV platforms based on the same underlying standard, known as DVB-GEM (Globally Executable MHP). GEM was developed as a common interoperable core middleware platform by a collaboration between the European DVB Project and CableLabs. DVB's Multimedia Home Platform (MHP), the Blu-ray Disk player, and tru2way are all based on the same underlying GEM specs.

According to the DVB Project Office, there are currently more than 22 million GEM-compatible devices deployed globally, including 13 million Blu-ray Disk players and 8.5 million MHP receivers. (These do not include the installed base of tru2way-capable set top boxes, so these numbers will grow fast when tru2way is turned on by the cable operators.)

Application developers can gain experience on one of the GEM platforms and apply it to the others. Many code elements can be directly reused. For example, interactive applications written to accompany Blu-ray Disk movies should be able to run on tru2way set-top boxes and TV sets when the same movie is accessed through an on-demand service.

Outstanding Questions

We came away from the tru2way conference feeling that the cable industry needs to answer some critical questions if it wants to attract innovative developers. These include

  • How many homes and how many TV sets will be able to play my tru2way application--and in what timeframe?
  • What is the nature of a deal between a developer and the cable industry? Can I cut a deal with the entire industry, or do I have to negotiate a "carriage agreement" with each MSO individually?
  • How can I ensure that my application will run on all different platforms and all different implementations of tru2way middleware? Will I have to do this with each operator, or will there be an industry-wide certification process?
  • Can I use real-time video streams as part of my application? Can I use the metadata in the streams?

In talking with many of the players at and after the show, we understood that the cable operators have a lot of work to do just deploying the infrastructure required to support tru2way system-by-system. This is probably an order of magnitude more complex than what they have typically done to support their set-top boxes, and some elements--like the consumer electronics equipment--are not fully under their control.

So we understand that the operators will have to walk before they can run. Their first priority is to deploy the infrastructure and make sure it is working properly. Then they can deploy some of their own applications--especially the "guide"--and make sure they work properly before next deploying applications bound to video channels. Only then can they start considering the added complexity of third-party applications.

This will take some time--perhaps several years. But tru2way finally appears to be rolling out. After writing about it for ten years, we're looking forward to start playing with it.

A Common Interactive Platform for Cable and Telephone Set Top Boxes?

Dick Green, CableLabs CEO --> Click for larger pictureAlthough the discussion thus far has focused on tru2way and the cable industry, Dick Green, CEO of CableLabs, had a message at NXTcomm about its potential use by the telephone industry. Green said that telcos could also use tru2way, since it is not exclusive to cable but is available to any multichannel provider that chooses to implement it on their network and in devices. "Our purpose in developing this technology was to provide a universal interface for interactive services that could be used by anyone."

This isn't as much of a stretch as it might sound. DVB has developed MHP-IPTV and GEM-IPTV specifications which share the GEM code base with tru2way. A presentation on the MHP website describes the relationships between OCAP (the old name for tru2way), MHP, GEM and GEM-IPTV.

We look forward to seeing whether telephone companies will choose to follow the cable operators down the GEM path.

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