Microsoft Crashes IPG Party

For 'Foundation,' program guide is just the start
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For 'Foundation,' program guide is just the start

REDMOND, WASH.

The people who created Windows are taking aim at TV viewers with a middleware platform promising interactive program guides and much more, and directly taking on Gemstar-TV Guide, the dominant provider of IPGs.

Microsoft TV Foundation, as the platform is called, could provide cable operators a second major IPG choice. Gemstar-TV Guide, meanwhile, continues to develop more advanced systems that offer numerous options and customizations for viewers and flexibility across a wide range of set-top boxes.

IPGs (sometimes still called EPGs, the name for the old-style non-interactive electronic program guides) have come a long way from the scrolling list of programs that still occupies a channel on analog cable, and a long way even from the clunky, slow guides of early generations of set-top boxes. With hundreds of channels, upward of 1,000 video-on-demand offerings, a week or two of schedules, program descriptions, parental controls and other features, serious TV viewers find the IPG vital to their experience.

"We think this whole concept of navigation and search is really important and an area [to which] we can bring a lot of added value," said Ed Graczyk, Microsoft TV director of marketing. "We've done human-technology interfaces for 25 years ... so we thought it was an area where software could really bring some added value."

MICROSOFT AS CHALLENGER?

A big challenge for IPG programmers is to squeeze a complex, full-featured system into a set-top box that's a pocket calculator compared to the PCs Microsoft is used to powering. The cable industry boasts about its $70 billion investment in digital infrastructure, but there are still millions of low-end set-top boxes across the country, and replacing all of them with disk-equipped powerhouses is no small expense.

"When you're talking about an STB you've got very little processing, you've got no hard disk, you've got very little memory," Graczyk said. "Our guide scales as low as the [Motorola] DCT 1000, and the specs of that box are 1 MB of memory and a 14.5 MHz processor." The memory available to the guide is even less-about 314 kB, he said. Applications such as Windows, in contrast, use hundreds of megabytes of memory.

"It's a big software development challenge," he said.

But that thin-client box is also connected by a 6 MHz pipe to the MSO's head-end, allowing use of the entire network. That opens up the potential for all sorts of data transfers, tapping even the MSO's VOD servers. Doesn't it make sense, asked Comcast VP of Digital TV Mark Hess, to pull a video clip of a show before you watch it?

Comcast (in Seattle) and Time Warner Cable (in Beaumont, Texas) is participating in very limited trial runs of Microsoft TV Foundation.

The IPG is just one aspect of Foundation. It allows a cable company to offer additional services to their subscribers, enabling what Microsoft calls "managed content," including informational news, sports or weather channels, interactive games and more. "From an MSO's perspective, this environment gives them an opportunity to really merchandise all their premium services in a way that they can't do today," Graczyk says.

A look south of the border (and to Portugal) shows what can happen with a more powerful set-top box. In several deployments, Microsoft TV Advanced runs on Motorola DCT 5000-level STBs offering 40-plus interactive channels, Internet access, the ability to hook up a PC to the box, and DVR capability.

"The technology's out there to enable that," Graczyk said. "I think it's just a matter of the economics; because you're paying more than twice the cost of that set-top, how can the operator recoup that over time?"

Gemstar-TV Guide dominates the program guide industry, both with deployments on cable systems and with its background as the premier publisher of TV listings. (Tribune Co. is the other major listing provider.) TV Guide Group President Ian Aaron isn't afraid of Bill Gates; in fact, Microsoft licenses some of Gemstar-TV Guide's vast portfolio of patented technology.

Aaron said Gemstar-TV Guide's history as an editorial and data provider is a major strength. "We're about how we leverage the technology to drive content, or drive programming," he said.

When an MSO wants to make changes on pay-per-view data or promote or enhance for VOD packaging, it's not trivial. "Not only do they change a lot, but they change literally every day. Add to that the fact that when we have special promotions, like a presidential campaign and there's a speech that's about to air or you have the Olympics and there's a special airing of something, all this data not only has to be generated and marked but it has to be distributed out to these thousands of head-ends and incorporated in the guides with listings that allow people to navigate according to these channels."

So Gemstar benefits from its distribution infrastructure -- primarily satellite with some fiber -- as well as its old specialty in the listings business. Its guide is in 12 million homes through a distribution infrastructure reaching 2,690 head-ends. "We have a whole broadcast network, customer service, backend office, advertising distribution -- we customize listings for over 4,000 different locations. So there are some barriers to entry of getting into this business that are beyond just creating software that sits on a set-top."

Gemstar also boasts a major facility in Radner, Pa., for testing and development of new products.

And new products are always needed as content increases and cable competes with satellite.

Aaron also notes the flexibility of Gemstar products across MSOs, different set-top boxes and other software providers.

"We have our guide working on Charter interfacing with Wink and WorldGate," he said. "We have our guide on Comcast interfacing with Liberate. We've integrated third-party API applications to interface with all the VOD servers -- SeaChange, Concurrent, nCube and a few others coming up.... We recognized that in order to get the broadest distribution, you're going to have to develop on multiple platforms," he said.

BIG BOXES

Looking ahead, Aaron said that Motorola's new DCT 6208 box, which includes hard-drive PVR functionality, will be released concurrently this fall with Gemstar -- TV Guide's Blue Guide, a new IPG product that more closely resembles the TV Guide Channel's on-air look. The Blue Guide provides support for DVR/PVR features, has an enhanced VOD and HDTV support, and has significantly faster and improved navigation, with a quick access menu bar and multi-level search capabilities.

Aaron said the i-guide ("i" stands for integration), to be released early next year, will incorporate all of the enhancements of the Blue Guide, and integrate the best of Gemstar's intellectual property portfolio and software structure, to bring smoother-resolution user interfaces along with caller ID, voicemail notification and other features to take advantage of cable's "triple play" of video, voice and data services. The advanced guide will be on display at The Western Show in Anaheim in December. The package has a whole new look and feel, Aaron said, with panel ads removed, higher resolution of the guide itself for larger screens, more customization and the ability to deploy across a wide range of boxes. "In fact, for cable systems that want to adopt the new i-Guide, no upgrade will be required to the headend or to the box.

It's important, he noted for an advanced system designed for a big box to also look good on a less powerful box.

The hype of PVRs and the integral role program guides play in creating a new viewer-centric TV world have not gone unnoticed by Gemstar; in fact, PVR leader TiVo licenses some Gemstar technology, Aaron said. TiVo did not respond to requests for comment.

OVER THE AIR EPGs?

Program guide capability is part of the PSIP standard, which ATSC Executive Director Mark Richer said will likely be mandated by the FCC in all DTV transmissions in the near future. And by the end of the year, ATSC expects to publish draft standards that could mean big strides in standardizing IPG-related data in the PSIP stream.

The goal, Richer said, is to standardize guide information within a TV station's entire plant, especially its automation processes.

"Right now it's difficult to automate that process," Richer said. ""We're developing a standard to connect all these pieces together. That's a really big project."

Broadcasters will learn a lot more about PSIP in general at ATSC's PSIP seminar, Oct. 22 and 23 in Alexandria, Va.

But while DTV stations now have some ability to broadcast IPGs, they don't have much incentive to do so.

"It is our intent to provide a whole range of PSIP-related EPG data carriage, but it is spotty at this time," said Mark Aitkin, director of advanced technology with Sinclair Broadcast Group.

For cable and especially TiVo, Aitkin notes, there's plenty of financial incentive to build an EPG, but building over-the-air program guides now means overhead and plenty of labor.

"We pass on what we can easily extract from the programming stream that flows into the NTSC," he said. "But there's not a lot of useful information that comes along as metadata in the NTSC world."

While Microsoft and Gemstar battle for the attention of MSOs, big operators such as Comcast are able to shop around for the EPG that wows their viewers while driving them to the premium offerings.

"There should be, at this point in time, no way a customer turns off his television and says there's nothing on-because there's just so much available," said Comcast's Hess.

He's always looking for a better, simpler, EPG. Currently, he said, Gemstar's search function, for example, requires the users to punch in letters. He wants to see searches possible by category or actor or other features, along with multiple entry points to video-on-demand (such as clicking on an HBO button to see that network's VOD offerings).

"There has to be a lot more richer and deeper information available to the customer," he said. "So in the movie world, shouldn't you have posterboards [instead of just text] there?"

What's driving a move to bigger boxes, he noted is not EPG power but that famed driver of consumer demand, high-definition TV, along with PVR capabilities.

"As HDTV becomes more popular, as more and more display units are bought, then more powerful boxes will go out there and we'll be able to leverage that for a better user experience and even more products," he said.