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Espial Joins IPTV Middleware MadnessEspial Joins IPTV Middleware Madness

Canadian set-top software maker looks to square off against Microsoft in IPTV middleware

November 2, 2006

4 Min Read
Espial Joins IPTV Middleware Madness

Espial Group Inc. will soon bring to market a full-blown IPTV middleware product to compete with Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) TV's market-dominating platform. The Canadian company says carriers may embrace its product as a more flexible alternative to Microsoft's "we-do-it-all" approach.

Espial, a vendor of set-top software, is now going to launch a network server -- called Evo Server -- which manages back-end functions such as integration with billing, content security, and advertising injection systems.

With this new element in place, Espial will compete for service provider business with Microsoft TV, Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; Frankfurt: SIE)/Myrio Corp. , Orca Interactive Ltd. , Minerva Networks Inc. , and others.

But the company focuses squarely on what it sees as Microsoft's weaknesses for the design and promotion of its product. (See Espial Supports HD.) Espial says its middleware system is different because of its "open" nature and its responsiveness to commands from the remote control. (See Inside Microsoft TV's Usability Lab.)

Espial VP of marketing Brian Mahony says Microsoft's middleware does not easily integrate with other "best of breed" video processing software made by other vendors. He points out that Microsoft uses its own digital rights management (DRM) system and its own video on demand (VOD) system.

Espial's system, he says, is flexible enough to integrate with whatever software the carrier chooses for its network. For instance, the carrier can use either Widevine Technologies Inc. or Verimatrix Inc. for DRM; Espial integrates with either one, Mahony says.

"Service providers are testing alternatives in their labs, and there's definitely room for new middleware players," says Heavy Reading IPTV analyst Rick Thompson. "All of them seem to be coming back to the market with next-generation products that are opening up the interfaces a little more so that more applications can be developed more quickly and more easily on top of the middleware platform."

Espial believes it has another major advantage over Microsoft. The system, Espial says, borrows some tricks from the cable and broadcast worlds to make its user interface respond more quickly to user commands.

Espial director of product management Rob Nadon says many IPTV programming guides use HTML pages to display data. Espial designs the pages of its programming guide to look and feel like HTML pages, but they're actually embedded C-code, which allows for changes and screen refreshes at a faster rate, Nadon says.

Mahony says the Espial system also manages programming data differently than other systems. "The indexing, or the lists of available content, are also pre-compiled on the set-top box so that when a search command is entered, it needn't be sent all the way out to a network server to grab the data."

Microsoft says that despite the claims of Espial and others, "one-throat-to-choke" is what service providers still want. "We have a healthy respect for competitors, but the fact is that Microsoft offers the only open, end-to-end software platform for IPTV services, allowing service providers to rely on one solution to manage, protect, and deliver digital TV services from the point of acquisition through delivery to consumers’ TV sets," says Microsoft TV spokesman Jim Brady.

Heavy Reading's Thompson says battling Microsoft for preeminence in the IPTV middleware space won't be easy, but he says Espial has a few important things going for it.

"They're not a brand new player; they’ve been in the industry and they really have understood the client-side middleware pretty well," Thompson says. "They seem to have a pretty good partner list, and they've worked with a number of the set-top box vendors, so it's good for them to now expand their product portfolio." (See Amino, Espial Team Up.)

Espial counts among its current set-top software customers several Tier 1 carriers including NTT Communications Corp. (NYSE: NTT), NTT East Corp. , Belgacom SA (Euronext: BELG), and KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN). The company also has more than 30 Tier 2 and 3 telco customers.

Espial will debut its new EVO Server product at the Telco TV show in Dallas on November 8.

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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