May 6, 2004

Interactive Java middleware coming soon to a TV set near you

Author: Chris Preimesberger

A big-time group of U.S. cable television operators and infrastructure providers Wednesday announced the formation of an expert group in the Java Community Process to develop a new Java-based digital television API standard â- OnRamp to OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform) â- targeted at giving new life to legacy cable television set-top boxes.

The coalition, led by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Liberate, Motorola, Philips, and Sun Microsystems, will work together as members of the expert group to define the new specification, called Java Specification Request 242.

New middleware will work across proprietary set-tops

They plan to build a common, Java-based layer of middleware that will tie together various proprietary set-top digital cable TV boxes from such manufacturers as Motorola, Philips, Liberate, and others. This layer, which may be available by late 2005, will be downloaded directly into these first-generation digital boxes by cable operators to add new functionality to home entertainment systems -- and, of course, bring new streams of income to cable companies and developers alike.

The new middleware will bring digital television applications -- including video on demand, enhanced program guides and interactivity to set-top boxes incapable of running OCAP -- allowing the widespread deployment of these applications even before OCAP set-top boxes become common. Starting this fall, most set-top boxes and digital cable-ready televisions will be built to the new OCAP specification to allow the cable industry to deploy more sophisticated interactive services.

Developers will be delighted to know that the source code will be open, Bill Sheppard, Sun's industry marketing manager for digital television, told NewsForge. Licensing details are being worked out by specification lead Craig Smithpeters of Cox Communications.

"JSR 242 (OnRamp) will define a new profile of CLDC (connected limited device configuration)," Smithpeters told NewsForge. "Any license structure for the reference implementation and TCK (technology compatibility kit) will obviously build upon that already present for CLDC."

Cox Communications is not in the business of licensing software, Smithpeters said. "Our intention is to ask for a very nominal per unit fee (to be determined) with an annual cap (also to be determined) in addition to that from CLDC to help defray the cost of developing the TCK and RI. As you know, it is the responsibility of the spec lead organization (in this case, Cox) to develop the RI and TCK.

"Bottom line: Cox is not looking to make money on the RI and TCK licensing. Our sole intention with JSR 242 is to rejuvenate interactive TV in the North American cable industry," Smithpeters said.

The JSR is targeted solely at the Java 2 Micro Edition platform, used for handheld and embedded devices. The only relationship to J2SE and J2EE are the core Java language constructs and APIs.

How will it all work?

Take, for example, the hot TV show, "American Idol," in which viewers vote for their favorite performers by calling an 800 phone number or by emailing a text message. A cable television using this Java-based system simply would have a button on the remote control that the viewer could use to vote for a singer during the show.

Likewise, a viewer could turn to The Weather Channel, for example, and punch up a local forecast immediately, instead of having to wait 20 minutes or so until the regular local forecast reached the air. In that casse, the system would work like an extension of TiVo.

Online interactive video games and other premium-type content also could be accessed through a system of this sort, Sheppard said.

Upon finalization of the specification -- which could take a year or more -- OnRamp to OCAP, a profile of the J2ME CLDC technology specification, will be available to all set-top box vendors, DTV application developers, and service providers.

"We are very excited that the cable industry is continuing to work together toward its goal of developing an industry standard for the development of interactive programming," said Lisa Shankle, vice president of development for The Weather Channel. "This will help save time and development cost, enabling us to launch robust interactive services quickly."

"OnRamp will make the interactive TV environment available on millions of legacy set-top boxes, allowing our industry to compete with iTV services deployed by DBS," said Chris Bowick, senior vice president of engineering and CTO for Cox. "OnRamp is a subset of OCAP, and applications written to OnRamp will be forward-compatible with our OCAP enabled devices."

Why Java has come full circle

"Thereâs a virtuous cycle in the Java ecosystem. Java technology is already in more than 250 million handsets. This volume has enabled a worldwide ecosystem of developers, applications, and services. This results in significant additional revenue for mobile operators and increased customer satisfaction for subscribers," said Alan Brenner, vice president of Sun's consumer and mobile systems group. "A new J2ME-based standard for resource-constrained cable set-top boxes brings these same benefits to the cable industry, while paving the way for full adoption of the OCAP standard on new devices."

The availability of a standards-based platform will help cable operators save time and money when launching new applications and services to more than 30 million current set-top box users in North America. Because OnRamp to OCAP is a subset of OCAP, applications developed for this platform will be compatible with the full OCAP specification, providing service providers an effective bridge technology before OCAP set-top boxes become widely deployed.

"OCAP is an extension of a tremendous amount of work that's already been done on the current standard, MHP (multimedia home platform)," Sheppard said.

Java has come full circle. Even before it got its name back in 1991-92, when it was simply known as the Oak project, it was originally was designed to serve as the software platform for a now long-forgotten television remote control called Star*7. It ended up a "miserable failure," according to project manager James Gosling. Then the Internet happened, and some folks at Sun Microsystems thought Java might work better there. It did; applets started popping up on the Web, JVMs began permeating desktop clients, Java moved to the enterprise, and the rest is IT history. Today J2EE is the de facto standard enterprise server platform.

Java was at first going to revolutionize the television industry. It failed the first time but might well make a comeback on the family-room screen.

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