Is Tru2way Ready to Grow Up?
CableLabs is close to releasing a "reference implementation" (RI) for tru2way that aims to iron out some wrinkles present among the different middleware stack implementations on the market today, and lower the barrier to entry for tru2way application developers and device makers.
CableLabs revealed the plan in early April, announcing it would serve up a source code RI for tru2way and offer it under two different models: via a free, open-source license, as well as a commercial license. Those that opt to pay for the license (the initial price on the RI is about $100,000) would have the green light to develop a commercial version of the stack. (See CableLabs to Release Tru2way 'Reference'.)
CableLabs is coupling the RI with a tru2way emulator and a software development kit (SDK) that, at the start, will cost $50,000 and $20,000, respectively. All of those components are designed to run on a PC, eliminating the need for developers to invest in a bunch of expensive cable headend gear and set-tops or gain access to a cable plant just to get their tru2way ambitions off the ground.
CableLabs intends to release the RI by mid-June, according to Phil Bender, senior manager of vendor relations for the CableLabs OpenCable/tru2way project. But the industry will get a good glimpse of it even before that -- CableLabs will show off the RI and its associated tools at the JavaOne conference, set to run June 2-5 in San Francisco. The RI will be featured in the show's "Java Utopia" area.
CableLabs confirmed that a good portion of the RI is based on the tru2way stack developed by OCAP Development LLC (ODL), a joint venture of Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC). enableTV Inc. , a startup that got off the ground last year after purchasing some of the assets of Vidiom Systems Inc. , is marketing a commercial tru2way stack that's based largely on the ODL middleware. The CableLabs SDK component also got its origins from Vision Workbench, an app that enableTV also obtained from Vidiom. (See Vidiom Founders Launch iTV Startup .)
It's about time for an RI
Having a reference implementation will also enable the industry to make and confirm changes on a platform that's likely to be in constant flux. The RI should ensure that app developers always have access to the most updated version to write to.
That may sound like simple common sense, but the lack of an RI has been a historic shortcoming for tru2way, the consumer-facing brand for the industry's OpenCable Platform. Without an RI, developers have been forced to create apps for a variety of multiple middleware stack implementations that may interpret pieces of the specs differently. That, in turn, means the promise of a "write once, deploy everywhere" ideal falls well short of the mark, since developers end up having to tweak their apps so that they behave correctly on all the tru2way stacks on the market. The new RI will attempt to clean up most of that ambiguity and extra integration work.
And the RI has been a long time in coming.
"Truthfully, this is something we should have done right from the start," says Craig Smithpeters, the executive director of applications at Cox Communications Inc. "If we would have had that over the years, it would've saved some work."
A tru2way RI will follow in the footsteps of how things are handled with Java, a key technical component of tru2way.
"To properly have a specification that's really desirable, at a minimum, you have to have an actual RI of that spec," says Bill Sheppard, the chief digital media officer for Sun Microsystems Inc. , noting that a Java spec can't be declared as such until there's an RI and a TCK, or test suite, to go along with it.
Accelerating app development
A big goal of the tru2way RI is to make it easier for developers, particularly third-party "casual" developers, to create applications for the tru2way platform by tapping an industry-accepted baseline middleware stack, which is still referred to as the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) in cable engineering circles.
"Cable is trying to increase our mindshare among application developers and get [tru2way] on people's on minds," Smithpeters says.
The emergence of the RI is also showing up just as some MSOs, notably Comcast, are starting to think about incorporating Flash in the set-top and tapping that technology's massive development pool. The Flash community has about 2 million developers worldwide, according to Anup Muraka, the director of partner development for Adobe Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: ADBE)'s business platform division. (See Can Flash & Tru2way Coexist? and Comcast Offers Glimpse of Flash Strategy .)
ActiveVideo , a company that has some tru2way aspirations, welcomes the RI because it's supposed to help developers port their apps to multiple middleware stacks more seamlessly.
"You're already treading on shaky ground that the application will run on every box out there," says Jeremy Edmonds, ActiveVideo's director of product management. "I think [the RI] is a step in the right direction. It will accelerate app development on the tru2way platform."
A competitive foil?
Although the RI could allow other companies to come forth with their own OCAP stacks, most don't believe its emergence will wreak havoc on the existing pool of third-party middleware makers.
In fact, there's a case to be made that there are already more stacks available now than the market can truly sustain. This crowded market already includes Alticast Corp. , enableTV, Osmosys SA , and Vividlogic . On top of that, Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) and Samsung Corp. have developed stacks of their own for their respective tru2way TVs. If anything, most tru2way observers expect the stack market is ripe for a consolidation rather than an expansion. (See Denver, Chicago First to Get Tru2way TVs.)
Besides, given the amount of work it takes to develop and maintain an OCAP stack, most don't see any new players emerging just because of the existence of an RI.
"It [the tru2way RI] would make it easier for someone to build their own stack, but the truth is that it's still an enormously complex undertaking," Sun's Sheppard says. "I don't think in any way this makes the existing middleware vendors irrelevant, but it certainly raises the bar in that it makes an implementation broadly available and gives companies a way to improve upon it."
"Just because there's a PC-based RI… that can be commercially licensed, that doesn't mean it's going to run on an embedded piece of silicon," says Jeff Bonin, the VP and GM for Alticast's U.S. operations, noting that there's plenty more layers of trial and error and lab work with MSOs to sort through before a tru2way stack can be considered "production ready."
"The effort and the maintenance and support of that stack is not a small undertaking," Bonin adds. Alticast, which counts Samsung among its box partners, has its tru2way stack in about 1 million set-tops.
Although the CableLabs effort gives third-party app developers a testing platform, it doesn't compete with Zodiac Interactive 's "PowerUp Framework" for tru2way Framework, according to Zodiac COO Alexander Libkind.
Zodiac's Framework includes an open set of libraries and APIs designed to account for the intricacies and nuances among the different tru2way stacks on the market. (See ITV Hookups and Zodiac, ADB Notch Tru2way Deal.)
"If you want to integrate across the cable plant, you'll need more than just the stack; the stack is just the beginning. Where the stack ends, we take over," Libkins says. The CableLabs RI "is not a golden bullet by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a good start," he adds.
Will the RI slow down the tru2way train?
With the RI not due out until mid-June, it begs the question: Will MSOs and box makers put their tru2way plans on hold. The short answer: No.
"There's nothing that's actually stopping that work," Bonin says. "No one's saying, let's wait for that reference implementation to get done."
"We aren't waiting for this," Smithpeters says of the tru2way RI, adding that Cox is getting some final work done on the platform it intends to start trialing in systems later this year. (See Cox Puts NDS at Heart of Tru2way Plan and Cox & NDS: BFFs .)
Most of the larger MSOs can't afford to wait for the RI, anyway. Cox, and five of the other top "incumbent" U.S. MSOs are already bound to an agreement originally negotiated with Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE) that ensures that they'll outfit their digital headends for tru2way by July 1, 2009. Charter Communications Inc. , which is in bankruptcy, is the exception; it has another year to get it done. (See Revealed: The Tru2way MOU.)
Those MSOs are also on the hook to include tru2way middleware in 20 percent of new interactive set-tops they purchase after July 1. That requirement will sunset, however, once those MSOs deploy 10 million units.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News
Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to Cable Next-Gen Video Strategies: Competing in the Three-Screen World, a one-day conference that will take a comprehensive look at the cable industry's attempts to generate revenues and fend off its rivals by deploying next-generation video technologies. To be staged in Atlanta, June 25, admission is free for attendees meeting our prequalification criteria. For more information, or to register, click here.