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European TV board gives Java a boost

A broad European consortium hands Sun Microsystems a key victory in its attempts to plant its "write once, run anywhere" Java technology in the television set.

Sun Microsystems scored a key victory today in its attempts to plant its Java technology in the television set.

Sun said that Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVB)--a European-based consortium that includes more than 250 broadcasters, manufacturers, network operators and regulatory bodies--has adopted Java technology as a key component of its standard for digital interactive television.

The latest DVB standard--referred to as a "multimedia home platform"--consists of software that will be included in cable and satellite set-top boxes, integrated digital TV receivers and in PCs to allow interactive services such as e-commerce in combination with TV programming.

For consumers, the news means that there will eventually be a larger array of interactive TV services and content available, as TV service providers and producers will be able to produce content and be assured that it can be seen on any DVB-compliant TV or set-top.

"By including Java technology in the DVB standard, developers will have a feature-rich, cost-effective and reliable software platform upon which to build the next generation of interactive television services," DVB chairman Theo Peek said in a statement.

The adoption by the DVB of Sun's "write-once, run-anywhere" Java technology in Europe, the leading market for interactive TV services, could also give Java a leg up against competitors such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard in similar efforts in the United States.

In the United States, the cable industry is working on a similar standard known as OpenCable, led by CableLabs. This standard would mandate that all of the new cable set-top boxes will be interoperable so that consumers can one day buy a box in one part of the country and have it work in another if they move. CableLabs is a research and development consortium of cable television system operators.

"It would be stupid for the U.S. cable industry to ignore the DVB standard. They're not," said Gerry Kaufhold, an analyst for Cahners In-Stat. Each city in the U.S. is going to have its own group of players pushing its own interactive products, Kaufhold said, and "in this stage of digital technology [for TV], nothing is homogenous across the country."

Cable Labs knows that if its standard diverged too much from the DVB standard, there would only be a limited market for the set-top hardware, and that translates into higher costs, according to Kaufhold.

One of the most important parts of the OpenCable specification has yet to be decided: the "middleware" software component that interprets data that is passed from a server computer to the TV set-top's operating system. Cable operators are planning on deploying a variety of set-tops and operating systems.

By using middleware that incorporates Java, the same EPG and video-on-demand programs can be used to control what the box displays on the TV, no matter what hardware is used. Being able to reuse these programs will help lower the cost of services as they get rolled out in more and more cities.

"Java is being seriously considered as part of what [CableLabs] is doing. Having a huge win in Europe certainly does help," Eric Chu, group product manager for Sun noted. Europe is an important market, he said, because companies there have had more experience in deploying interactive services.