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Remember the hype about interactive TV (ITV) back in the early 1990s? By now, everyone was supposed to be watching video on demand. These projects failed because they were prohibitively expensive; however, a lot of this expertise leaked over to Internet development and now the concept of convergence is emerging once again, this time supported by Internet standards such as Java.

Before the Internet appeared in the media landscape, Java had been conceived as a lightweight language to allow consumer electronics devices such as VCRs, game systems, TVs, and set-top boxes talk to each other. After a brief detour onto the Web, Java is back at its roots and Sun has just strengthened its position by coming out with the new Java TV API. To be released in full at the end of first quarter 1999, Sun has already announced a list of partners and information on the Java TV API.

With many different manufacturers developing set-top boxes, the Java Virtual Machine concept makes sense.

With many different manufacturers developing set-top boxes, the Java Virtual Machine concept makes sense: it’s a development environment that can be implemented on a variety of platforms. While set-top box manufacturers are using a very wide variety of chip sets and configurations, they should be able to easily port applications between different cable systems if they each write to the Java standards.

In the near future, each different cable environment may be its own system, making cross-platform compatibility as desired among cable systems as it is among different operating systems today. Porting from one environment to another can prove highly expensive if developers need to start nearly from scratch for each platform. By using Java as a de-coupling layer to abstract the software from the hardware, content creation companies can literally write once and run anywhere.

The Java TV API extends Java into the television environment. It allows Java to receive and control information from devices such as remote controls and other consumer electronics. The Java-powered set-top box may become the audiovisual information center of the home for many people. Analysts have predicted that computers will have reached market saturation at 60 percent — the set-top box could be the candidate to push Internet access and other limited computer applications into the remainder of consumer homes.

ITV is able to draw
from the huge pool
of Java developers already creating content for the Web.

Unlike the original development of interactive TV that was undertaken by large telecommunications companies, the new interactive TV is more of a grassroots effort utilizing development tools proven on the Internet. ITV is thus able to draw from the huge pool of Java developers already creating content for the Web and server-side Java. By building on this pool of developers and existing technologies, Java-based interactive TV development is far cheaper than the initial ITV efforts.

Yet Sun and Java face some significant external pressures to creating this utopia of write once play anywhere. Microsoft wants Windows CE to be the operating system that powers the majority of these new digital set-top boxes, the de facto standard. To spearhead this effort, Microsoft is converting WebTV — which claims a user base of about 250,000 — to the Windows CE platform from its current proprietary standard.

On the other hand, Sun has lined up a large number of companies to support Java including content developers, authoring tool creators, large cable infrastructure companies, and hardware manufacturers (see table).

Toshiba, which manufactures creator of set-top boxes, hopes standards will help speed development in this new market. It offers experience developing laptop computers that should come in handy.
Matsushita, with brand names such as Technics and Panasonic, holds a large stake in making sure its consumer electronics can interact in a home entertainment network.
Motorola, maker of Hellcat and Blackbird set-top boxes that will feature Java Virtual Machines, is also looking into featuring Java in cellular phone products.
Scientific-Atlanta creates Explorer 2000, a cable digital set-top box, and would like the box to become the home networking center.
Sony wants to use Personal Java to wire the home entertainment environment, and is particularly interested in resolving piracy and security issues in set-top boxes.
Philips is developing set-top boxes as well as interactive applications such as multi-camera interactive sporting events.

Sun is covering all parts of the ITV food change. The creation of easy-to-use authoring tools will help to drive prices down on development by allowing people other than programmers to develop interactive content. Look for companies that have long developed CD-ROM and Internet authoring tools to begin to enter this market in the next few years.

  • OpenTV has begun development of authoring tools such as MPEG encoders and tools like Open Author, a Windows NT-based ITV authoring tool.
  • Veon creates interactive video tools and authoring tools for RealNetworks’ G2 Player.

Cable companies have also chosen to work with Sun on Java standards.

  • HongKong Telecom has 80,000 Java-based interactive television systems already installed
  • TCI chosen Java technology as the standards application environment for development in its cable network. TCI has also hedged its bets by working with Microsoft.

In an ideal world, standards such as Sun’s Java TV API would allow any application to work on any computer or set-top box running a Java virtual machine. In reality, the diversity of devices running Java will make this extremely difficult. However, if Sun can hold off Microsoft’s Windows CE and keep the Java market from fracturing, we may avoid the incompatibilities and problems that come with porting between different operating systems.

Jeff Rule is a principal at RuleWeb Development specializing in DHTML, SMIL, Shockwave, and Java-based multimedia. His first book, Dynamic HTML: The HTML Developer’s Guide was published in December 1998 by Addison Wesley Longman.

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