Microsoft Tries Again

Verizon, SBC deals revive software giant's inroads into TV
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REDMOND, WASH.

Microsoft TV scored the latest in a series of successful sales in snaring the software contract for Verizon's telco-TV rollout, dubbed FiOS TV, scheduled for sometime late this year. This follows a similar sale to SBC for its telco-TV project last year, Comcast and a growing list of customers worldwide.

"Verizon's got a really unique infrastructure," said Ed Graczyk, director of marketing and communications for the Microsoft TV division. "[Bringing fiber into the home,] they're using some elements of what some people would consider a cable delivery environment for TV, and other elements that are IPTV related."

"The Microsoft TV platform not only provides us with advanced digital TV capabilities that are designed to serve the millions of Verizon subscribers we ultimately expect will choose FiOS TV," stated Verizon president of retail markets group Bob Ingalls, "but it gives us virtually unlimited potential to evolve our interactive services into the most seamlessly integrated offering in the industry."

Graczyk cited the overall Microsoft company product line as a key to this integrated offering.

"Because Microsoft TV is part of a bigger set of solutions that Microsoft as a company provides, it helps these network operators deliver their services beyond just the television screen." He listed Windows computers, Pocket PCs and mobile phones, set-top boxes, and gaming consoles to which Verizon could deliver integrated suites of communication, information and entertainment services.

Not wanting to give competitors a chance to ape its new system before it rolls out, Verizon officials declined to detail for TV Technology the actual feature-set they will be offering. But a show-and-tell by SBC during the Bill Gates keynote at CES 2005 in January provided a sneak peek.

One was a Major League Baseball application, where one game could be viewed live full-screen, with three other games appearing live, stacked in small boxes along the left hand side of the screen. Viewers can switch the various games to the main screen with the remote, as well as access player and team statistics and so forth.

Graczyk said that designing applications such as this is simplified because there is no additional hardware required for each of the picture-in-picture boxes needed. "We're able to do all of that on a regular television set with a regular TV set-top box, because that tuning functionality is done in software and in the network."

Another SBC demo at CES allowed a traveling subscriber to receive a reminder of an upcoming program on his cell phone. The reminder allowed the subscriber to view a 30-second promo on the handset.

Deciding he would like to see the show, but knowing he wouldn't be home in time to view it live, with the push of a button on the cell phone he could instruct the system's DVR to record it for him.

DESTINATION, IP

Back in the home, the Microsoft TV software also allows the cable system viewing menu to display live video from each of the channel offerings as the subscriber scrolls through them, which would allow them to quickly switch to (or avoid) a fight on the Jerry Springer show.

The hardware portion of Verizon's set-top box is built by Motorola, and comes with a remote. But unlike a standard cable box, it sits as a partner on the home network, which allows the viewer to access music, video and other files on desktop PCs and other computers on that network.

As Verizon's example proves, there's no standard system for delivering video to the home. "The infrastructure that Verizon's rolling out this year is very similar to where the cable companies are trying to get to as part of their next generation network architecture network," said Graczyk.

"On the other hand, you've got companies like SBC that are using a different approach. They're not doing fiber to the premises. [In] most of their deployments they're doing fiber to the node, and they've decided to take a pure IPTV approach from the start."

But Graczyk see them all heading to an IP solution in the end. "I think if you talk with Verizon, or look at some of their public statements, IPTV is the long-term bet. But given just kind of the uniqueness of their environment, they've chosen this as the first step."

"Some other companies have chosen another first step, but they're all going in the same direction."