Some of the largest players in the cable and computer industry are quietly working on designs for next-generation digital set-top boxes, products that will change the way people use their televisions.
Recently, companies submitted to CableLabs their ideas for the design of new digital set-top boxes that can offer advanced functions, including video-on-demand, electronic shopping, and multiplayer games over the Internet as well as displaying the basic television content.
CableLabs, a research and development consortium of cable television system operators, now becomes the focus of attention for computer industry giants as well as cable industry stalwarts. Some unusual alliances are resulting from the competition for its attention.
Microsoft (MSFT) has offered an independent proposal, while its partner in the desktop computer market, Intel (INTC), is advancing a scheme in tandem with Cisco, Oracle (ORCL), and Oracle subsidiary NCI, which does software for Internet set-top boxes, among others.
Yet another proposal has been offered by a group led by Scientific-Atlanta (SFA), one of the largest set-top box and cable network equipment providers in the U.S. Sun Microsystems (SUNW), IBM (IBM), Toshiba, and PowerTV are also part of this group.
Why the interest? Building advanced functions into newfangled cable boxes requires rethinking the design. Design innovations in turn require increased processing power and memory capacity on the order of what some desktop computers have, though all of this must be squeezed into a smaller space at a lower cost.
"There's a lot of interest in what can and will go into set-top boxes. WebTV makes that interesting because of what's inside--there's so much processing power," says Gary Schultz, president and principal analyst for Multimedia Research Group
Since CableLabs is asking that all the new cable boxes must be able to talk with a central server computer at the cable company office, what's inside may be dictated less by demonstrated technological prowess than by simple economics. While possessing the ability to take a variety of signal formats and display them on televisions, the cable boxes will be able, like PCs, to play back MPEG-2 video, and are likely to have disk drives, Schultz says. Further, for interactive services, either an analog modem or a cable modem is needed to return requests for information to the server.
Controlling all this hardware is the job of the operating system. But while some 80 percent of desktop computers run one kind of operating system (Windows) that is closely associated with the use of one kind of processor (Intel), the world of cable boxes will likely be filled with a wide array of processors and probably a variety of operating systems.
"Whose operating systems will be on there? You could define a standard set-top box so that any OS could work with it. I don't know if that will happen because there is the perception that its important," Schultz notes.
The proposals submitted to CableLabs all remain confidential at this point. However, a quick look at some of the present technologies and initiatives that the companies have underway does offer glimpses into what the proposals might contain.
In the Scientific-Atlanta camp, for instance, Scientific-Atlanta has said it is working on a set-top box that uses a MicroSparc 32-bit RISC processor from Sun and a separate graphics accelerator chip, as well as an operating system from PowerTV.
In the Intel, Oracle, and Cisco camp, NCI has provided the operating system software used by RCA in its set-top box for Internet browsing. The box uses a 40-MHz 32-bit ARM processor, and could be adapted for use as a digital set-top box. Intel, of course, is probably proposing that its own processors be used in digital set-top boxes, but the company is more interested in getting PC companies to sell server computers (with their more expensive and more power processors) to the cable companies.
Microsoft is offering its Windows CE operating system as the platform that can control sophisticated hardware technologies from WebTV, which Microsoft recently acquired. The newest WebTV system has a 167-MHz, 64-bit MIPS processor and also added for the first time a hard disk drive for storing data. Microsoft also apparently hopes cable companies will be swayed by the ability to offer extensive third-party programs derived from PC applications to cable customers.
Both Microsoft and Intel may struggle to achieve the dominating positions they are accustomed to in the PC industry, according to some observers.
"The PC related companies may be underestimating the complexity of the whole client-server requirements and the complexity needed to pull this together in an efficient, low-cost manner," says Bow Rodgers, COO, and general manager of PowerTV.