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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the April 2000 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column discusses two competing standards for interactive television…

The Boob Tube Battle

Choice. When it comes to living my life and spending my time and money, choice is what I want. This month, I’m putting on my National Inquirer hat and stirring up a petite pot boiler. What piqued my interest when I first heard about these proceedings is the resignation exhibited by audio folks when confronted with incompatible systems and an annoying lack of standards. How is it that the SMPTE has standard recommendations for metadata formatting and transport, interchange file formats and many other critical issues and procedures? I’d be surprised if the AES could be this proactive. But I’m getting ahead of myself…Having just returned from CES, where digital media trends of the future are trotted out in iMac colors, I was horrified and amused at the emphasis on home automation and ubiquitous rich media delivery. Digital radio services that receive, store and play back only your favorite tunes and shows, for a low monthly fee. Internet access, in full color and stereo sound, in your new PT Cruiser while fighting commuter traffic. While I can’t wait until liquid crystal toilet paper arrives, I worry how all these delivery channels will or won’t work with each other. The word for the day is “Conformance,” to ensure that not only are distribution channels interoperable, but that they reproduce content in precisely the same way that a producer specifies.

Now, imagine that common appliances like your alarm system, ‘fridge and microwave, in addition to their already existing embedded OS, have a connection to the net. Great for keeping the freezer stocked and the house secure. But, what about more complicated items like the DTV set top boxes coming into the market next year? Intel, a founding member of the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) consortium along with Microsoft, NBC and Disney, has begun datacasting into my home market from it’s Center for Datacasting Innovation in Santa Clara. “Gorsh, Dad, I clicked on that funky download graphic by accident and now the TV won't work!”

This month’s rant comes down to the now familiar fight of open systems pitted against proprietary products. In this instance, the combatants are the ATVEF and the ATSC’s (Advanced Television Systems Committee) DTV Application Software Environment (DASE) group. Both are associations vying for control of a large consumer market. Both have a great deal at stake and envision tremendous returns, revenues for the former and interoperability for the latter, if they’re successful. And, caught in the middle is both the consumer and us folks, members of the production and support services industry. We already have to deal with the current range of non-standards. To allow corporations or trade organizations to sidestep basic interoperability to serve their profit projections isn't something I applaud.

Sometimes proprietary products pose as open and egalitarian. Now, I'm no fan of the ATSC. Their demure handling of the DTV standard has left both consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers and broadcasters pissed off. No wonder confused consumers aren’t opening their wallets for DTV products. But, the ATSC’s take on interactive TV is, to my taste, a more workable approach than the ATVEF’s. CE manufacturers seem to agree.

The ATVEF wants to shape the standard to conform to their view of the world. Their proposal is based on extensions to JavaScript and HTML v4. As I see it, one of the key problems with this approach is Microsoft’s track record of diluting competitive technology by “extending” standards. This behavior doesn’t engender confidence, given their track record. Especially since they envision client applications, based on the Win32 API, that talk directly to a set-top box. APIs or application programming interfaces are software modules that abstract underlying mechanisms, making for portable, more easily created code. According to an unnamed source quoted in EE Times, the ATVEF proposal is “…so PC-centric that it will force consumer manufacturers to design their receivers either to look a lot like a lower-end PC or a WebTV set-top…It leaves us very little room to scale or differentiate our products…” Or, to have reliable, television services that interoperate with any vendor’s gear. Interestingly, a unified XHTML specification was just approved by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Net’s standards body. XHTML merges XML, the Extensible Markup Language and version 4 of HTML (HyperText Markup Language). Together, they control the standard exchange and display of information on the Web.

The ATSC, as a standards setting body, envisions their role as a facilitator working for the creation of “a harmonized solution in the world across terrestrial and cable broadcast networks.” Mark Richer, Executive Director at the ATSC, rightly down plays my combative slant, characterizing the competition as simply the give and take of standards–making. He does concede that “DASE is a more comprehensive standard than ATVEF, with complete software & middleware.” That middleware consists of an Application Execution Engine, a Presentation Engine, APIs and other modules. The DASE proposed specifications relies heavily on the Java Media Framework and proposes a Java–based XHTML decoder in the TV receiver system. They want to create a scalable, secure, OS–agnostic standard for both broadcasters and CE manufacturers.

Another hair ball is the use or abuse of the Java platform. Sun has been pig headed about their insistence on extracting fees from licensees while proclaiming they’re the shepherd of the standard. Yeah, right. All sides of the debate find Sun’s Java licensing policy unacceptable. Ah, but here comes The Feds. Recently, a federal judge has ruled that Microsoft must ship products featuring the Java programming language that conform to standards set by their arch–rival, Sun Microsystems. Though it’s too soon to tell at press time, this single event could validate not only the ATSC offering but stabilize the whole Java platform. We shall see.

As the marketplace naturally seeks equilibrium, the consumer and professionals increasingly suffers from technology overload. If you call Pixar Animation Studios, their voice mail intones, "If your VCR at home is still blinking 12 o’clock, then press 0 at any time…" The transition to DTV will, for most of us, not be an easy one and adding more complexity to our lives can’t make things better. Given that, if the DTV system is designed form the start to be extensible and interoperable, then at least we won't have to worry about compatibility at home and at work…Stay informed.

Sidebar

There are two other movements that strengthen the unmolested Java platform and the DASE’s position. One is the European Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) for set-top boxes and the other is the Advanced Interactive Content (AIC) initiative. The AIC seeks "to integrate and harmonize VRML, MPEG-4, and Broadcast HTML (an XHTML subset)," creating an open specification using only existing technology. That is, with no extensions. If successful, they will have created a content-programming platform for a broadcast environment, delivered by either MPEG-2 or IP transport protocols. MHP is a set of common APIs designed to create an OS–independent standard for Java-based, Digital Video Broadcast (DVB) interactive television. The main difference between DASE and MHP is that the European effort must address legacy systems and the US proposal does not. ATSC mentions that 70% of the Java APIs are common. So, commonality between the US and European systems could mean lower costs and ease of data interchange. A lofty goal. Thank the Gods that there are companies with representative in both the ATVEF and DASE camps and pray that efforts to harmonize the disparate desires of all parties is successful.

Bio

OMas runs www.seneschal.net, a provider of new media services, from warm and sunny San Francisco.