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TCI keeping Microsoft at arm's length

True to earlier promises to limit Microsoft's set-top influence, TCI is expected to use operating systems from Sun and possibly Sony.

True to earlier promises to limit Microsoft's clout in the emerging market for next-generation TV set-top cable boxes, Tele-Communications Incorporated is expected to use operating system software from Sun Microsystems and possibly Sony.

In what was seen as a surprise development, in January TCI reached an agreement to use Microsoft's Windows CE operating system in up to 5 million interactive TV set-top boxes. But TCI is not playing favorites with the software giant: The cable TV operator has told analysts that it intends to use other OS software technology as part of a plan to offer a variety of digital set-top boxes with different levels of features.

"TCI is increasingly interested in a real-time operating system [from Sun and Sony]. They are better for telephony and gaming because of latency issues," said Michael Harris, president of Kinetic Strategies, making an observation confirmed by others who attended a recent meeting at company headquarters in Englewood, Colorado. A "real time" system differs from that used in typical desktop PCs because the operating system tasks are handled within strict time constraints.

High-tech heavyweights such as Microsoft and Sun are interested in getting their products into the boxes that sit atop tens of millions of TV sets because they provide a valuable growth opportunity as demand in traditional PC desktop and server markets levels off.

TCI executives did not return phone calls today, but the company has already indicated that some of its boxes will use PersonalJava--which is not an OS but a middle layer of software. In the meantime, there is a protracted, deafening silence as TCI and Microsoft continue to negotiate over financing the deployment of Windows CE-based set-top boxes, as CNET's NEWS.COM first reported in February.

Contemporary cable set-top boxes now do little more than change TV channels, but in the future they will be able to offer services such as electronic programming guides, video on demand, email service, Internet browsing, telephony, and more.

The Sun operating system that TCI is considering is called JavaOS for Consumers, a hybrid of PersonalJava and Chorus, a real-time operating system that Sun purchased last year. JavaOS for Consumers is designed to take up less memory, and technology acquired from Diba allows for the support of different display resolutions and fonts without using a separate graphics chip like other technologies require, said Troy Toman, group marketing manager for embedded systems with the SunSoft unit at Sun.

While avoiding talk of possible deals with TCI, Toman coyly noted that "announcements are interesting, but what is most interesting is what's in the box when TCI starts shipping," referring to TCI's intention to favor the most practical OS and not perpetuate the Microsoft-centric paradigm of the PC world.

Sun isn't the only option to Microsoft's Windows CE that TCI is exploring. Sony has an operating system called "Perios" that the cable company is looking at, according to analysts. Separately, Sony has been working with set-top box maker General Instrument, the company which is manufacturing TCI's set-top boxes, to develop devices that would serve as a hub for PC and consumer electronics devices in the home, all linked together by FireWire technology.

"There is a predilection on the part of TCI and many others to [use] many operating systems in addition to or in lieu of Windows CE but with Java running on top," says Cynthia Brumfield, an analyst with Paul Kagan Associates. "I don't think cable has it all parsed out on how everything will fit together," she cautions. "This is the last critical step in forming how these boxes will look."

But focusing on the operating system could be missing the point, according to Brumfield. "To some extent, the OS is irrelevant. In terms of what developers will write to, [the application programming interfaces (APIs)] will create the incentive for people to create applications," she said.

APIs go hand-in-hand with the OS in the PC world, she said, but cable industry executives are trying to ensure that this isn't the case with regard to set-top boxes, so as to not give any one company too much power.

An API helps separate the application and the OS to make it easier for programs to be reused on other platforms. A formal industry initiative called the OpenCable project is also going to address the issue of defining this middle layer of software. The project is being headed by the CableLabs, a research and development consortium of cable television system operators.

As part of its attempt to develop a set of hardware and software standards for digital set-top boxes, CableLabs is expected to publish a specification for APIs by May which will include a mixture of technologies from Microsoft and Sun, among others.