Cable Technology Feature Article
May 04, 2009
Why Tru2way Will Explode In The U.S. In 2009
In these challenging economic times, it’s nice to get a little good news for a change. One of the great untold success stories in today’s flat consumer electronics market is tru2way, an interactive technology platform that is already changing how we watch television and driving demand for new products and services.
The momentum behind tru2way technology is powerful. The six major cable MSOs in the U.S. recently pledged that 20 percent of all new cable set-tops will be tru2way-enabled by July 1, 2009. Time Warner (News - Alert) Cable, the nation’s 2nd largest operator, has already deployed 1.7 million tru2way set-top boxes to customer homes.
On the hardware and software side, companies providing tru2way technology include: chip suppliers Broadcom, ST Micro, Intel, and AMD; head-end infrastructure providers Motorola and Cisco (News - Alert); consumer electronics manufacturers Panasonic, LG, Samsung, and Sony; and software specialists like Alticast.
The secret to tru2way’s success
At a macro level, what makes tru2way technology such a success in the U.S. has been (1) the way in which competitors have come together to rally behind a single technology standard for interactive television; and (2) the fact that tru2way technology has something for everyone, from MSOs and hardware manufacturers, to application developers and consumers.
For many years, the U.S. cable market was highly fragmented, and operators standardized on proprietary set-top boxes from a handful of major vendors, principally Motorola and Cisco/Scientific Atlanta.
The OpenCable™ initiative, managed by the non-profit industry R&D group CableLabs, began in 1997 with the goal of helping the cable industry deploy interactive services and create competition in the host device marketplace. At the time, the Digital Video Broadcasting Project’s MHP initiative was already well under development, and rather than reinvent the wheel, CableLabs decided to collaborate with the DVB standards body and re-use elements of the MHP standard where it was appropriate.
The result was a new common Java-based software/middleware standard called the Open Cable Application Platform (OCAP). All the major MSOs agreed on this standard, which was later given the consumer-facing brand name of tru2way.
Looking under the hood of tru2way
U.S. and European specifications bodies worked together closely to develop OCAP (tru2way) base on version 1.0.0 of the DVB-MHP specification. Since US operators, in the main, do not use DVB standards, there was a need to adapt the selected DVB-MHP Specification for the technical differences between European and USA cable networks and, in some cases, cable management philosophies.
The table below (see figure 1) illustrates the cross fertilization of the tru2way and MHP specifications and the growth of MHP to version 1.2, which now more closely resembles the tru2way specification. Apart from the obvious Network Layer technical differences, such as MPEG Profiles and Service Information, one notable difference is the way in which the STB is controlled and the relationship between the STB and the head-end system. The OCAP Monitor Application, which is described more fully in the next section, is a key element to the success to the future retailing of cable set-top boxes and integrated digital televisions.
A Monitor application controls the connected device
The monitor application plays an important part in an OCAP/Tru2way receiver, acting as a combination of a navigator, a part of the middleware, and the network operator's representative in the receiver.
Why is the monitor a separate application? Why not move this functionality into the middleware?
For one thing, it allows the network operator to enforce common behavior across receivers. In an MHP system, two different receivers on the same network may behave differently when resolving a resource conflict between two applications. In an OCAP system, they will probably behave the same, but they may both behave differently when they're plugged into a different network. This allows the network operator to make the user experience as close to identical as possible, no matter who built the receiver. If all boxes on a network are running the same monitor application, you know that the behavior will be identical in those areas over which the monitor application has responsibility.
Tru2way and convergence between cable, satellite, terrestrial, IPTV and Blu-Ray Products Further cross fertilization of the open standard technologies between technical organizations, including the DVB, ATSC, ARIB, ATSC, BDA, OpenIPTV Forum, and the ITU, has resulted in the publication of the DVB-GEM (News - Alert) Specification (see figure 2).
Figure 2: DVB-GEM Specification
GEM (Globally Executable MHP) allows any content delivery system to adopt the core of DVB’s open middleware for interactive television, DVB-MHP. GEM is a common core engine on which interactive television applications can run and is completely transmission agnostic. Tru2way and Web 2.0 applications can be created in a Gem Framework and exported for use over other interactive networks for DVB, U.S. and Korean cable, Japanese DTT, IPTV, and now Blu-ray Disc systems.
This “convergence specification” fits neatly into both the objectives of open standard middleware initiatives and the “write once, read anywhere” objectives of interactive TV application developers. Furthermore, this specification minimizes the software to a single engine and set of APIs in a device for services over differing transmission systems, paving the way for hybrid tru2way+ACAP DTT set-top boxes, tru2way+Blue-ray devices, MHP+Blu-ray devices, and more.
Tru2way opens up the market for retail products
Open Standards like Tru2way are the door opener for a booming retail market. Only standards can provide the economies of scale that consumer electronics manufactures need to be successfully in a market.
In October 2008, Panasonic (News - Alert) announced the arrival of the first tru2way HDTVs at retail, enabling consumers to experience video-on-demand and other services without a set-top box. Major manufacturers have announced many other products under development for release in the U.S. market in 2009.
There is another good reason why consumer electronics manufacturers are interested in tru2way technology – because they want to build more sophisticated cable-ready products, such as those that incorporate Blu-ray Disc players. This dovetails neatly with the strategy of MSOs, which was articulated by Time Warner Cable’s public statements that such advanced devices are too expensive for an operator to justify buying in volume.
Application developers appreciate tru2way technology because it’s easy to develop for, it’s inexpensive, and it’s based on GEM/Java, so there is no need to license or learn a propriety technology.
In terms of the consumer benefits of tru2way technology, the research findings are clear that consumers like the idea of combining a cable set-top into a TV for three primary reasons. First, it eliminates the need to pay money every month to lease a cable set-top box. Second, it vastly simplifies hookups. And third, it reduces the clutter of remote controls and boxes around the house.
Taking a closer look at the details
At a micro level, the market benefits of tru2way technology are driving adoption by MSOs, consumer electronics companies, application developers, and consumers themselves. Perhaps tru2way technology’s most significant benefit, and its raison d’être, is the value-added, two-way interactive services it enables. Such applications can include Electronic Program Guides (EPG's), interactive advertisements, games, chat, web browsing, and t-commerce. For cable operators, the potential to generate additional revenues per household with tru2way technology is enormous.
Because tru2way technology provides a common software foundation, every device looks the same to applications, making it easier for consumer electronics designers to create combo products, such as a Blu-ray Disc player with built in set-top box or TV with built in set-top-box and Blu-ray Disc player. The overlapping core technology simply makes it easier to conceive of those kinds of multi-function products.
As mentioned earlier, cable ready TVs mean no more set-top boxes, with the benefits to consumers of lower cost and fewer wires and remotes. But there is also a significant financial benefit to cable operators, which no longer need to carry millions of set-top boxes on their balance sheets.
Perhaps the most exciting benefit of tru2way technology is the opportunity for creative companies to build new forms of interactivity. For example, Yahoo! Connected TV recently announced TV Widgets. TV Widgets are as rich, varied, and useful as the most popular sites on the Web, reinterpreted for TV. Consumers can use their TV remote control to check stock quotes and the weather, follow sports teams, read blogs, or catch-up on missed episodes of their favorite shows. Connecting tru2way functionality with technology like TV Widgets enables an entirely new class of connected television (see figure 3).
Figure 3: TV Widgets in Action
Standards-based interoperability is the key
Adherence to open standards is critical to ensuring that software applications, cable services, and hardware devices will all work together seamlessly. At the core of this multimedia platform are two technologies: GEM (Globally Executable MHP) and Java. They provide a readily available, open, standards-based platform and specifications for developing applications, building devices, installing into homes, and everything else that goes into the delivery of interactive services (see figure 4).
Figure 4: Architecture for delivery of interactive applications
DVB-MHP, tru2way technology, and Blu-ray Disc Java are all built around this GEM/Java core standard and thus share a common Application Programming Interface (API). Application code written using the Java programming language is delivered to a set-top box, which uses the API to run the application, creating the experience for the consumer.
This allows multiple cable operators to leverage a common technology foundation and then differentiate their applications and services for specific markets and geographies. For example, Blu-ray Disc Java applications on a disc can be easily repurposed for home cable using tru2way technology thanks to commonality of the GEM/Java platform. In Europe, cable operators can repurpose these applications the same way using DVB-MHP.
The bottom-line is that the open, standard-based approach generates money for everyone in the value chain – from cable operators, to device makers, to application developers, to content producers. Looking ahead, tru2way technology is set to become the cable and consumer electronics industries’ best story of 2009 – and it will only get better as more households begin converting to tru2way enabled TVs and set-top boxes.
Jeff Bonin is Vice President and General Manager at Alticast (News - Alert). For more information, please visit the company Web site.
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Edited by Erik Linask