RealTime IT News

Microsoft TV Makes Cable Software Push

Microsoft Corp. is making another run at interactive television, this time in a new software platform that it said would enable cable companies to develop digital TV programming and services.

As part of the National Cable Television Association's annual meeting in Chicago, the software giant unveiled its Microsoft TV Foundation Edition, the name of the software designed to run on digital set-top boxes. The software effectively creates a layer for applications and communications between the consumer's set-top box and servers that reside in cable headends.

Microsoft said its software would allow cable operators to generate new revenues by offering services, such as on-screen TV guides, movies-on-demand and a new generation of interactive advertisements, coupons and other sales and marketing incentive programs. It said the software allows cable operators to offer a variety of video-on-demand services, including films and episodes stored in computer video vaults, and functions that allow users to pause, fast-forward or rewind programming from their remote control.

The move isn't Microsoft's first foray into interactive television programs and software. Indeed, Microsoft TV has redefined itself several times since its now-downsized Web TV initiative and after nearly a decade of a variety of software products for the digital and interactive TV markets.

Years ago, at the dawn of some of Microsoft's interactive television pitches, digital TV was seen as mere hype, such as with Time Warner Cable's much-heralded Full Service Network. But interactive programming has begun to catch on with consumers, especially some forms of video-on-demand, as cable providers upgrade their networks from analog to digital networks, the main building block of interactive programming.

Microsoft's latest TV software announcement also comes only a few weeks after the company was awarded a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark office for its claim to an "interactive entertainment network system," which observers characterized as a process of building on-demand programming. Whether the software release is intertwined in any way with its patent is still unclear.

With video on demand and other interactive forms of entertainment now finally rolling out to digital-ready cable subscribers, the question at this week's National Cable Television Association annual meeting is who might sign on to Microsoft TV's new product.

Comcast , the nation's largest cable provider, was expected to announce that it would conduct a trial of the new software, which comes as the cable provider is spending more than $4 billion to upgrade its entire cable system for digital broadcasting. Microsoft also has a stake in Comcast left over from its $5 billion investment in AT&T Broadband, which was eventually acquired by Comcast.

"Microsoft TV Foundation is a complete end-to-end solution that enables network operators to better package and promote services such as video on demand (VOD), while helping viewers more easily find and use the services with an innovative, built-in interactive program guide (IPG). Operators can create On-Demand Storefronts for video, and offer games and information services including news, weather and sports, bringing new benefits to subscribers," the company said about the new software package.

As part of its announcements at the Chicago cable convention, Microsoft said companies supporting its new Microsoft TV Foundation include cable interactive infrastructure providers Advanced Digital Broadcast (ADB) Ltd., Concurrent Computer Corp. , MetaTV, Motorola, , SeaChange and Two Way TV.

The only set-top manufacturer that Microsoft mentions is supporting its is Motorola, which is says can deliver its software across a range of devices, including the Motorola DCT1700, DCT2000, DCT2500, DCT5100 and DCT6000 family of advanced interactive set-top boxes.

Microsoft continues to fight uphill in the interactive program guide, or IPG market. While its new software include Microsoft's IPG, and the system has been introduced two two Oregon-based cable operations, and one in Mexico, it trails the market-leading IPG product from Gemstar TV Guide International

While Microsoft was convinced that consumers would want Internet access on their televisions through incorporating cable modem technology into set-top boxes, they have clearly backed away from that strategy. The new Microsoft TV plan is to provide software to cable operators, so they can boost revenues.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was slated to discuss the Microsoft TV initiative during an address at the convention in Chicago Monday.

On Monday, Advanced Digital Broadcast said it is demonstrating what it calls "Multimedia Home Platform/OpenCable Applications middle solutions running on Motorola's powerful DCT2500 set-top."

ADB, Microsoft and Motorola said they would be deploy a "proof-of-concept demo" in order to demonstrate the memory and performance of the set-tops running Microsoft TV Foundation software. The partners said the "platform can enable applications built both on ADB's MHP 1.0.2 and OCAP 1.0 specifications, as well as the Microsoft .NET Compact Framework TV Edition (included with Microsoft TV Foundation)."

ADB went onto say the demo would feature "two Java-based applications - an interactive trivia/quiz game and a children's educational game."

Microsoft's new TV platform features the Microsoft TV Tools Suite for applications development and testing, which is based on Microsoft Visual Studio .Net tools and distributed through the Microsoft TV Developer Program. The developer's tool suite allows third-party developers to create rich content and tools using open standards, including programming protocols XHTML and C# .

Microsoft also said that Sigma Designs and National Semiconductor had signed on as applications developers for future products and technologies for digital television.