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Can One Middleware Rule European Cable?

Jeff Baumgartner
12/23/2009

Cable Europe Labs has booted up a middleware project that looks to create a common, interactive set-top platform for the entire region. But as with its U.S. counterpart, the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), the plan's success hinges on whether it gets buy-in from the major MSOs of Europe.

A key objective of the "European Middleware Initiative" is to create a common, scalable middleware platform for the European cable market, which is fragmented by a wide range of set-top/software combinations. The idea is to create an attractive base for application developers to target.

The Cable Europe Labs (CEL) MSO membership represents about 73 million homes, but it's estimated that only one-fourth of the region's cable TV base is getting some form of digital, so there's some urgency in getting everyone down the path of middleware uniformity before digital becomes deeply penetrated in Europe. (See Cable Europe Moves on Middleware.)

"The spec will be cooked in 2010 for sure," says Peter Percosan, CEL's chief technology officer. "I'll be disappointed if we don't have something demonstrable by IBC," he adds, referring to next year's show in Amsterdam, scheduled to kick off Sept. 9.

CEL already has some insight into what this pan-European middleware platform will encompass. The final spec is expected to be based on the Multimedia Home Platform (MHP), a Java-powered middleware system that represents the bulk of OCAP, the middleware component of tru2way.

CEL's version is also expected to incorporate extensions for two Web-focused technologies -- HTML and Adobe Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: ADBE) Flash. The latter is viewed by some as a big miss by tru2way, considering it enjoys broad adoption and a massive development community. Some U.S. MSOs have shown interest in bolting Flash into the set-top environment and having it live alongside tru2way. (See Adobe: Tru2way Won't Shackle Flash , Can Flash & Tru2way Coexist? , and Comcast Offers Glimpse of Flash Strategy .)

Nothing about the European Middleware Initiative is set in stone yet, though. The project will start with a "gap analysis," and organizers are soliciting feedback on what might be missing. CEL doesn’t expect to write anything from scratch, instead tapping into standards (official or de facto) whenever possible, Percosan says.

Despite the presence of Flash, Percosan says the heavy MHP influence on both sides of the Atlantic should ensure that there's no dramatic technical difference between OCAP and CEL's middleware. "If you're doing applications for tru2way, you'll have a pretty easy time heading towards Europe."

He says CEL might also take a page from CableLabs ' tru2way strategy and publish a Reference Implementation (RI) for its middleware, to try to remove much of the guesswork out of the process for app developers. There's no official plan for an RI yet, though. (See Is Tru2way Ready to Grow Up? and CableLabs: 'Hundreds' Have Downloaded Tru2way Reference Stack.)

Another stated goal of tru2way is to help develop a retail market for cable-ready TVs and set-tops -- something the U.S. has so far flopped at. (See Consumer Groups to FCC: Redo the Set-Top Rules .) Retail's not the initial focus of CEL's middleware effort, but it "can be a derivative of this project," Percosan says. The CI+ specification is already being used in Europe to provide a common security interface between conditional access modules (CAMs) and integrated Digital TVs.

A spotty history
The plan might sound good, but history suggests it may be difficult to get all MSOs on board.

In the U.S., the top six incumbent MSOs have committed to deploy tru2way, but smaller operators have paused, worried in part about the costs and complexities of the platform. In Canada, the situation is even spottier: Rogers Communications Inc. (Toronto: RCI), that nation's largest MSO, is already seeking an alternative to tru2way, although Vidéotron Telecom Ltd. is giving tru2way a go. (See Evolution Passes on Tru2way , Another Operator Shuns Tru2way , Videotron Trots Out Tru2way , and Rogers Seeks Tru2way Alternative .)

Cable Europe Labs' press release announcing the project highlights quotes of support from Germany's Unitymedia GmbH and Belgium's Telenet . Other CEL members haven't committed yet; examples include UBC, Ziggo B.V. (Netherlands), Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED) (United Kingdom), ONO (Spain), Welho (Finland), ZON Multimédia (Portugal), Kabel Norge (Norge), com hem AB (Sweden), Numericable-SFR (France), and Kabel Deutschland GmbH (Deutschland).

Percosan says the middleware project is "high profile" and "has the full support of the CTO Steering Team," but there's still skepticism that the CEL can herd its members to make this middleware truly pan-European.

One challenge is the fact that MSOs in Europe developed over different timescales, some starting off with advanced boxes with an array of middlewares, others with low-end zapper boxes.

"So we have an even bigger mish-mash than in the U.S. market," says Jeremy Thorpe, CEO and founder of Latens Systems Ltd. , a maker of conditional and middleware systems headquartered in Belfast.

Thorpe, previously the CTO of Tandberg Television and a former exec of U.K. MSO NTL (now part of Virgin), says standardization will be a tough goal to achieve, given the current state of the market. Some MSOs are already using proprietary middleware from vendors such as OpenTV Corp. (Nasdaq: OPTV) or NDS Ltd. , while a few others, including Multimedia Polska, have bought into MHP.

Virgin Media, meanwhile, has been using SeaChange International Inc. (Nasdaq: SEAC) middleware (acquired from Liberate Technologies) and is looking to add TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) middleware to the mix. (See TiVo Coming to Virgin's Non-DVRs, Too and Virgin Presses 'Play' on TiVo.)

Cable Europe Labs has not announced who will participate as subject matter experts for the middleware project, "but it is fair to say that an expert from TiVo certainly would be welcomed to join the team," Percosan says.

Thorpe acknowledges that these are still early days, but says the fragmented state of set-top technologies in Europe "is why I'm a little skeptical on this kind of standardization."

But the good news, he notes, is that boxes that have enough horsepower to use MHP aren't nearly as expensive as they used to be, so the economics of such a solution are improving.

Although Latens's conditional access system is up and running on MHP-powered boxes, the company's middleware does not use that platform. That position might change if the CEL project ends up having legs. "It's quite feasible that we will continue to do… more with MHP," Thorpe says.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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