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Home NC in a set-top box

Oracle subsidiary NCI introduces its "DTV Navigator" software for use in next generation digital set-top boxes.

    Oracle (ORCL) subsidiary NCI introduced software today for low-cost home computing devices, as it focuses increasingly on the consumer market.

    NCI introduced its "DTV Navigator" software for use in next generation digital set-top boxes as the Western Cable Show gets under way today. (See related story) NCI has also gained valuable backing from heavyweights Intel (INTC) and Scientific-Atlanta (SFA).

    Cable companies are now working on next-generation boxes with more computer-like features. These would replace the converter boxes on top of television sets that now merely unscramble TV signals.

    NCI says its software will enable these newer digital set-top boxes to offer services such as Internet access and electronic program guides for viewing on televisions. DTV Navigator will be used with Scientific-Atlanta's Explorer 2000 digital set-top boxes, the company announced. Similar software may also run on Intel set-top computers in the future.

    Intel last week proposed a set-top computer architecture, which at the low-end would resemble the set-top boxes being readied by companies such as Scientific-Atlanta. Intel was demonstrating a prototype set-top computer with NCI software last week at an event where it spelled out its future strategy for this market.

    NCI's software works by simplifying the data stream sent from the server computer to the end user's set-top box, which typically has very limited computing resources available for processing. In essence, the set-top box can become the home network computer (NC) that Oracle's CEO Larry Ellison originally envisioned--a low cost device that accesses applications and information from a central computer.

    The NC was originally positioned principally as a replacement for hard-to-maintain corporate desktop PCs and terminal computers, but the Oracle subsidiary seems to be refocusing on the home market since there have been relatively few customers for its corporate software. Microsoft and Intel have also diminished the impact of this concept by responding with a number of low-cost, network-centric business computing initatives of their own.

    However, the home looms as a promising target. NCI says the set-top computer will be one of several devices connected through a home network, and the set-top device will probably offer a "pipe" to the Internet for the other devices in the house. "We're not advocating that there shouldn't be a PC in the house," vice president of consumer marketing for NCI Dave Limp says.

    NCI's targeting of digital set-top boxes comes at a time when it has as much chance as any other company of getting its technology adopted.

    Through CableLabs, a research and development consortium of cable television system operators, the industry is working on developing a set of hardware and software standards for digital set-top boxes that can use a variety of processors or operating systems. NCI's alignment with Scientific-Atlanta, one of the largest set-top box and cable network equipment providers in the United States, as well as Intel offer inroads into two different system designs that could be adopted by the industry.

    NCI isn't the first company to reinvent its strategy in the market for less expensive computing devices, either.

    Intel announced last week plans for building the core components for digital set-top boxes which were running NCI's TV Navigator software (See related story). The move marks a significant turnaround for the chipmaking giant, which previously appeared to be disinterested in the market for low margin devices.