Intel does a 180 on OpenCable – and more OCAP news

As recently as November, 2006 Intel was opposed to the licensing terms for OCAP (the OpenCable Application Platform) and they opposed requiring consumer electronics (CE) vendors to support OCAP in general for two-way cable services. Well, things change, and apparently Intel is more comfortable with it now as they’ve signed a licensing agreement with Cable Television Laboratories (aka CableLabs). The license will allow Intel to incorporate OCAP support into their system-on-a-chip processors aimed at the CE market.

Kircos added that Intel’s agreement with CableLabs on OpenCable concerns only the chip family for CE devices it plans to introduce in 2008, “not a PC play per se, nor for our Core or Pentium processors at this point.”

I actually think this is more an issue of Intel being a large corporation with their fingers in several pies than a real reversal. Intel would still like to see a two-way standard that allows CE devices to access two-way cable services (SDV, VOD, etc) without the hefty overhead of supporting OCAP. However, at the same time, there is a market for chips that are going into the new generation of cable set top box and other devices which *will* support OCAP, and Intel wasn’t willing to cede the market to the competition over OCAP.

In another development, Microsoft and CableLabs have extended their partnership with a formal collaborative effort to develop ways for two-way cable services to function on PCs. It isn’t clear if this means embedding OCAP in Windows or developing an alternative system. I’d be a bit shocked if it is the former. OCAP is Java-based – and MS has a deep hatred for Java. The primary reason MS backs HD DVD over Blu-ray is that HD DVD uses iHD (developed my Microsoft and Toshiba) for interactive features while Blu-ray uses BD-Java – which is itself derived from the same MHP/GEM standards that OCAP was derived from, and hence related in a way. I just don’t see Microsoft grinning and paying for a Java license to embed Java in every copy of Windows MCE, not after the past acrimony over their JVM, etc. But I suppose stranger things have happened.

OCAP is running far behind schedule. It was originally anticipated to be widely deployed by the end of 2006, now the cable industry is claiming it will be widely deployed by the end of 2008. Delays in getting the OCAP infrastructure in place had cascaded to a number of delays, including delays in getting TiVo’s new OCAP-based software out for Comcast and Cox.

The majority of the CE industry has shunned OpenCable mainly due to the OCAP requirement. Adding support for OCAP increases the costs and complexity of their products and, at the same time, impacts their software design as features utilizing OCAP will run cable software and not the CE vendor’s own UI. This doesn’t sit well with the industry.

There have been some notable exceptions. Panasonic, LG, and Samsung have all licensed OCAP and are producing OCAP-compliant devices. It isn’t too surprising, as these companies product cable products for other countries. Until now, the US market was dominated by Motorola and Scientific Atlanta, and it was nearly impossible for a 3rd party to break in. Cable companies used Motorola head-end systems with Motorola STBs, or SA with SA. Now with CableCARD and OCAP, it is easier for 3rd parties to enter the market. Panasonic and Samsung are already making cable boxes for US Cable MSOs, utilizing CableCARD. Samsung is testing OCAP televisions with Time Warner.

If you’re making a cable STB, then OCAP isn’t a big issue. That’s the way the industry is going and Motorola and SA are supporting OCAP on their products, so competitors will do the same. OCAP is based on the MHP/GEM standards used in STBs around the world, so supporting OCAP isn’t a big leap for vendors already making STBs in other countries.

If you’re making high-end TVs it isn’t so bad either. The cost can be absorbed, and since the TV didn’t really have much in the way of interactivity and advanced features, there isn’t a conflict between OCAP and the CE vendors own software and UI. So LG and Samsung testing the waters for OCAP TVs isn’t a big surprise.

However, if you produce more advanced products, like TiVo or Digeo, then yielding control to OCAP is a big deal. And cost is an issue for most CE products, with the cost of supporting OCAP being non-negligible – both in the added hardware and in the required licenses. Which is why CE vendors really want a simple, basic way to handle two-way features without all of the baggage of OCAP. OCAP is pretty hefty, and a lot more than is needed to handle simple tasks like SDV or ordering VOD.

There could possibly be some progress on this front this week, as the FCC is holding an open meeting in Portland, ME to discuss the issue, amongst other agenda items.

About MegaZone

MegaZone is the Editor of Gizmo Lovers and the chief contributor. He's been online since 1989 and active in several generations of 'social media' - mailing lists, USENet groups, web forums, and since 2003, blogging.    MegaZone has a presence on several social platforms: Google+ / Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn / LiveJournal / Web.    You can also follow Gizmo Lovers on other sites: Blog / Google+ / Facebook / Twitter.
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