Comcast Offers Glimpse of Flash Strategy

Flash players may be coming to a tru2way cable set-top box near you someday, but just don’t expect the first implementations to carry Web TV fare from the likes of YouTube Inc. , Hulu LLC , and Fancast.

Instead, expect to see some some widgets and other simple Flash-based applications that can be embedded into an MSO's interactive program guide (IPG).

Cable's interest in running Flash in the set-top has run hot and cold in recent years, but the topic heated up again yesterday when Adobe Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: ADBE) announced a spate of partners -- including Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) -- that aim to bring Flash to digital televisions, set-tops, and Blu-Ray players. (See Adobe Extends Flash.)

For cable, this opens the possibility of carrying Internet video into the home via something like a hybrid QAM-IP set-top with a Docsis 3.0 cable modem.

"There might need to be some modifications of the tru2way [specification], but all the hooks are in there to make Flash video playback possible" in Java-based tru2way set-tops, says an exec with a vendor that develops tru2way middleware.

But don't get too excited, Web TV fans. That's not what Comcast has in mind.

"We do want to see this [Flash] ship on actual set-top boxes," Comcast senior vice president and chief software architect Sree Kotay tells Cable Digital News. But he envisions Comcast starting out with more "lightweight" apps that can be embedded with the IPG, such as email readers and weather widgets.

Getting even to that point will take a while. Comcast is busy in 2009 getting base tru2way architecture deployed in the first place. The addition of Flash could be as much as 24 months away, Kotay says.

At the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in Las Vegas this week, Comcast is demonstrating a Flash player optimized for the TV set and integrated with a tru2way-based box running on Broadcom chips. All the demonstrated applications are embedded into the Comcast IPG. The MSO is also showing off a version for the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) platform.

The goal is to show "how tru2way enables Flash integration and how you can develop parts of your application in Flash and parts of it in Java," Kotay says. He says Flash adoption will give the MSO access to a broader development community and open up chances to deliver content and applications across platforms.

Will other MSOs join the Flash fun?
Comcast seems to have the lead among MSOs when it comes to working with Flash on set-tops. "Outside of Comcast we have not seen a lot of activity," says another source who works for a vendor in the tru2way ecosystem.

Still, adding Flash to the cable set-top environment isn't a completely new idea. Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) runs a version of its Mystro Digital Navigator (an IPG) on the Bluestreak Technology Inc. Flash engine in some pre-tru2way boxes, but the status of that activity is unclear. TWC and Bluestreak officials could not be reached for official comment, but a source familiar with the MSO's strategy says Time Warner Cable remains interested in using Flash as a set-top box presentation layer.

One source likened MSOs' Flash work to a "good science project," noting that there are big question marks about how cable can integrate and test the technology in the set-top.

"None of this was considered in the original OCAP specs," he says referring to the OpenCable Application Platform, the middleware component of tru2way.

So is CableLabs mulling a Flash extension for tru2way? At press time, the organization hadn't returned a request for comment. But the pieces evidently are there for Flash and tru2way to live together harmoniously.

Kotay says a "well behaved application" ECR (engineering change request) allows for third-party presentations to integrate with the tru2way middleware.

"I don't think we'll see Flash as part of tru2way officially" he says. "But this isn't in any way a replacement for tru2way. In fact, this [Flash strategy] is enabled by tru2way."

Others say Flash will be even more attractive to cable if it can be integrated with MSO video-on-demand, digital video recorders, and conditional access systems, rather than used as a simple extension.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

BillShepp 12/5/2012 | 4:06:34 PM
re: Comcast Offers Glimpse of Flash Strategy

Flash offers some benefits in terms of broadening the developer pool, but at the cost of additional hardware and software complexity and fragmentation of the platform (since it's unlikely all Tru2way devices will have Flash support).  This will prove unnecessary as Java developer support for tru2way matures.  There are a number of tools featuring similar environments to Flash tools which enable tru2way development for non-programmers (web authors and scripters), and there are frameworks and scripting libraries under development from multiple sources (both open source and commercial) which streamline creation of lightweight native Java applications (widgets).

Jeff Baumgartner 12/5/2012 | 4:06:30 PM
re: Comcast Offers Glimpse of Flash Strategy

Bill, I'm curious then why Comcast thinks it's necessary to pursue Flash even if you hold that it won't be necessary as the Java developer market grows and matures for more Java-centric tru2way apps.  Contentinople just ran a follow up story on this development suggesting that Comcast might use Flash as the basis of an iPhone-like apps store strategy.  Even though Flash in Comcast-supplied tru2way boxes appears to be very far upfield, the question is begged whether the emergence of Flash as an apps tool throws a monkey wrench into tru2way apps development if other MSOs don't likewise adopt a Flash strategy.  So, could it?

menexis 12/5/2012 | 4:06:17 PM
re: Comcast Offers Glimpse of Flash Strategy

Great article! That makes a lot more sense to me now. At first I wasn't sure who or why they were even considering this

BillShepp 12/5/2012 | 4:06:17 PM
re: Comcast Offers Glimpse of Flash Strategy

I'd suggest Comcast may be testing the waters to see whether it's feasible to incorporate Flash support. However, tru2way itself is a very flexible platform, and I'm confident we'll see many different options for authoring tru2way content emerge over the remainder of this year which will significantly broaden the pool of developers.


Regarding a content store, there's certainly nothing inherent to Flash applications which make them more suitable to a storefront than native tru2way applications.  If a content store makes sense (and it certainly might, though this is clearly uncharted behavior for television consumption at this point) it will make sense for tru2way apps as well.


Sign In