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Sun, TCI tune to set-top boxes

The cable giant will incorporate Sun's PersonalJava as an operating system for TCI's next-generation digital set-top boxes.

Sun Microsystems (SUNW) and Tele-Communications Incorporated (TCOMA) announced this afternoon that the cable company will use Sun's PersonalJava software for TCI's next-generation digital set-top boxes.

The announcement boosts Sun's hopes of advancing Java as a universal computer language and extends its reach beyond the computer into the realm of consumer electronics. It also deals a blow to rival Microsoft, which had hoped to be the first to strike a deal with TCI. Microsoft is angling to incorporate a version of its Windows operating system into TCI's digital set-top boxes.

During a conference call announcing the agreement with Sun, Bruce Ravenel, senior vice president of TCI, acknowledged TCI has been in conversations with Microsoft but declined to disclose their substance. Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates is scheduled to deliver an address at the Consumer Electronics Show tomorrow in Las Vegas that's rumored to contain an announcement regarding TCI.

TCI has not settled on a single microprocessor or operating system for its set-top devices, according to Ravenel. It is expected that a variety of processors and software will be used in next generation set-top boxes, whose advanced features will make them more akin to personal computers than the basic cable boxes of today.

TCI chose PersonalJava because the cable giant is committed to an open standard in the converging environments of television broadcasting and e-commerce, Ravenel repeated a number of times during the call. "[An open standard] is necessary to the development of the new applications consumers will demand in homes," he stated.

"We thought this was essential to jump-start the interactive television environment for customers," he added.

The agreement "demonstrates the relevance of Java beyond the desktop and into the consumer environment," said Alan Baratz, president of Sun's JavaSoft business unit, during the same call.

Sun claims Java is an open standard, and has submitted the language to an international standards body. Sun and Microsoft are currently in court, arguing over Sun's claim that Microsoft is writing proprietary code for Java in an attempt to "hijack" the language.

Asked if Windows CE's incorporation into TCI's set-top boxes would now require the operating system to fully comply with Java, Ravenel replied, "I don't believe the answer is yes. There is no reason why the PersonalJava engine could not run on that engine."

TCI said it expects to deliver 6.5 to 10 million next-generation digital set-top boxes to its customers over a two-year period beginning in early 1999, "without making significant increases to our customer's charges." TCI has about 10 million customers, and its partners list another 15 million customers, according to TCI.

Current set-top boxes do little more than allow subscribers to view numerous channels and pay-per-view programming. But the next generation of set-top boxes will handle much of the computing tasks associated with the convergence of television and the Internet, including digital television, Web on television, email, video telephony, DVD playback, and computer gaming.

Just this week, Sun began shipping PersonalJava, a subset of the Java software platform built specifically to run devices such as Web phones, set-top boxes, and handheld data-entry terminals. (See related story)

Financial terms were not disclosed. Neither firm agreed to make an investment in the other, according to executives.