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Intel goes with Oracle on digital TV

Intel is backing a proposal for digital cable-TV standards that is spearheaded by Network Computer Inc., a firm backed by Microsoft rival Oracle.

Intel (INTC) is backing a proposal for digital cable-TV standards that competes with Microsoft and is spearheaded by Network Computer Inc. (NCI), a firm that is majority-owned by Oracle.

Intel said today that it has submitted a proposal to Cable Labs with the aim of establishing "open" standards for set-top boxes and digital TV. The proposed set-top technologies would allow high-speed Internet access as well as digital video services on TVs.

"We?re interested in an open architecture being established to allow the market to develop quickly. This can happen if many vendors are innovating at many levels," said an Intel spokesperson today. "We?re aware that Microsoft is making a proposal but we chose to work with NCI," said the Intel spokesperson.

Intel's decision demonstrates that momentum may be building for a set of technologies and products which compete with Microsoft. Oracle and Intel have become strange bedfellows almost overnight after Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's April epiphany that Oracle's Network Computer (NC) reference design should be made from Intel building blocks.

At that time, Oracle was showing NCs and server computers featuring Intel Pentium chips.

At the receiving end of the NCI-Intel proposal is Cable Labs, a research and development consortium. Its members include many of the largest cable vendors, and it has established a project called "OpenCable" aimed at creating "a new generation of set-top boxes that are interoperable," according to a consortium statement. Members include Adelphia, Time Warner Cable, and Comcast. (Microsoft recently purchased a ten-percent interest in Comcast.)

"Microprocessor and semiconductor technology are advanced to the point where a set-top box can become a digital set-top computer very soon," said Dr. Richard R. Green, president and CEO of CableLabs in a recently published prepared statement.

This is where companies such as Intel come in. "Our main expertise is in the area of microprocessors, and media issues such as digital transmission," said the Intel spokesperson.

"We do believe that set-top boxes will require high-performance microprocessors to provide the best service to customers...it takes a good deal of [computer] intelligence," he added. In a future cable-based set-top box, both movie video and broadcast video may arrive in MPEG-2 format along with Internet data. A processor will be required to handle all this data.

Intel says its processors are capable of these multimedia-rich data streams. Intel said details of the proposal to Cable Labs will remain "private" for the time being.

Interestingly enough, Microsoft has been proposing Windows CE technologies for set-top boxes, which are based on processors other than Intel processors, including the Hitachi SH-3 chip. Intel's veritable eschewing of the Windows CE market may also be related to its hook-up with Oracle's NCI group.

Microsoft is also investing in companies such as WebTV which are based on competing standards.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.