OCAP – Who’s Capping Whom?

Justin Thyme, industry insider and crackpot, provides anonymous analysis and commentary.

There’s been a lot of discussion and curiosity about the relevance of OCAP in being able to watch TV your way. I’ve attempted to put together the picture as I see it. I have no clear idea of a solution to the problem presented — all I’m doing is attempting to describe the situation. Although it has rather vast implications, the essential details are simple. How this struggle plays out affects consumer electronics manufacturers, such as TiVo, in profound ways.

Looking at this historically, when you have a dumb box on the end of a wire, cable company traffic is one way. The CableCARD 1.0 spec supported that set-up. The cableco head-end server is just pumping data down to the box which decrypts and then plays it. Once the box gets some more powerful processors, more interesting things can be done. Software can run on the box and send messages back to the Cable Company servers. This could be something simple like requesting a VOD channel, to something more complex, like running an interactive guide or a channel specific app like a Home Shopping Channel bidding & order entry application. So having some kind of software is essential for these new kinds of services. At present, in the US there is an impasse between the cable companies and the consumer electronics companies. Elsewhere, other software is being used and the impasse has been solved. The essence is that the CE companies do not wish to be the victim of an operating system dominance scheme.

The objective in Operating system wars is to create a situation where all third party vendors are creating software, hardware and services which depends on your operating system software. This was the basis of major battles of recent history- like MSDOS versus DR-DOS (Digital Research DOS), Windows versus OS/2, Internet Explorer versus Netscape, and so on. OS struggles have vast implications.

It is true that both Netscape and OCAP occupy a middle ground between the low level operating system and the application software that the user is interacting with, but they fall into the same operating system dominance strategy because it is not the position in the hierarchy that is crucial, but whether the applications are dependent on their layer, rather than someone else’s.

Being able to define the dominant software API is critical to controlling the fate of the class of consumer electronic device that uses it.

In the mid 90’s, Microsoft assembled the Cable companies in Redmond and proposed that Cable Companies use head-end and set-top box software which would do many wondrous things that are only now appearing today, such as video-on-demand and the capability to copy video locally to an STB.**** By 1997, MS had purchased 1 billion in Comcast stock to grease the deal. But the proposal, to put it mildly, was most unwelcome. After a crucial presentation by Gates in 1997 in New York, cable execs exclaimed “I don’t want to be Bill Gates’ next download,” with full suggestion of the brown shade of download which would be received. Malone stated at the TCI meeting shortly after, “Bill Gates would like to be the only technology supplier for this whole evolution. We would all be very foolish to allow this to happen.” (source)

But they liked the strategy. CableLabs was created to essentially reinvent and control the standards in their own way with their own proprietary and patented technologies. They would control their fate by controlling the hardware specs (e.g. CableCARD) as well as the software layer (OCAP). Further, by controlling operating system software embedded in devices like TVs, they could expand their influence by providing the OS for CE devices — the role that Gates coveted. Gates didn’t have the content leverage over the CE companies. Cable did.

The implications for control of the OS in the living room are enormous… You have a horse betting program written in OCAP, and so if the gambler gets hooked on it, the consumer wants to have it on their portable device. Any vendors that want the application must license OCAP from CableLabs. Naturally, the OCAP data feed, in such a product scenario, would come from the cableco… and the consumer must pay for it. It’s a lucrative situation with a high degree of leverage.

If the internet didn’t happen along, we very well could have been interacting on proprietary closed cable networks rather than on an open non-proprietary network, with the attendant social goods in the internet case of the absence of boundaries of a global network where no single entity is in control or can dominate.

In Europe and Asia, the possibility of such OS domination by a single entity was prevented by using an open standard. In these countries, OCAP’s function is filled by DVB-MHP and is used both for cable and satellite interactive digital TV applications. Although based on MHP, OCAP is controlled by CableLabs, a consortium of US cable companies.

Independent CE companies do not want to see themselves subjected to the kind of abuse of dominant market position that a certain software company has lorded over the computer industry. In the US, if a CE company wants a television that provides the full range of entertainment services, then they are being told by CableLabs that they must license and support OCAP. There is a class of CE companies who cater to the needs of Cable companies who buy billions of dollars of set top boxes- these include NDS, Thomson, Motorola, and Scientific Atlanta. These companies are very eager for cableco contracts and openly embrace these competing OS’s. Third party vendors not involved with such contracts, and who like Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba instead manufacture alternatives to carrier boxes take great umbrage at attempts by the cablecos to cast their participation in the CableCARD/OCAP discussions as signifying endorsement in any way of OCAP.

Example: Snippy little note from Sony to the FCC about OCAP BS here.

There is no technical reason for requiring OCAP in particular or even cable proprietary network technology to switch channels- such as for VOD, switched channel, or PPV. The cablecos are using dominance in content delivery to leverage themselves into the provider of system software for the devices that CE companies build. To do that would be to surrender control.

Others are also avoiding the cow pie. In FIOS, Verizon has used fiber as a transport for a conventional one way cable system. But they have avoided the cable company’s strategy of proprietary lock on technology by entirely avoiding use of the cable protocols for interactivity. They are using Internet Protocol transport (IP) instead for communication back to the video head-end server**. AT&T (nee SBC)’s fiber system is using IP entirely. Since it would have been foolish to rely on protocols controlled by cableco competitors, these two telco’s chose a vendor whose interests did not compete to a high degree with theirs.

Microsoft TV, take 2. Although Verizon has chosen a hybrid scheme of two different MS OS packages, this is for transitional purposes only, and both AT&T and Verizon FIOS have chosen Microsoft TV IPTV Edition as their long term software platform. Although Microsoft has its own software dominance scheme, the telcos are more comfortable with MS’s business model does not compete with theirs as the cableco’s do. Theoretically, the telcos could switch horses to an Apple OSX, but Apple so far is no show in the living room. Alternatively, the telcos could go with DVB-MBH or choose to each roll their own proprietary scheme and control their own fates at the expense of interop with other CE devices. Microsoft’s CES2006 demonstration of creating a branded experience on third party portable devices (with DirecTV) was a signal to carriers of the lost benefits if they choose an OS isolationist stance.

Ultimately, the world is moving to devices that can access content from a variety of content vendors, and so the interaction protocol and programs will have to be more generalized than those defined by particular content vendors.

When you look at what the OCAP, IPTV, and DVB-MHB software is doing — guide, navigation to multiple sources of content, player of music, photos, and a high level language for interactive applications, the feature list bears a striking resemblance to one we are all familiar with — looks like a TiVo. This little guy has a lot of chutzpah.

Advocates of the protocols or language of one vendor over another oftentimes are unknowingly acting as proxies for rather large companies whose business interests and practices have a minimal degree of overlap with the best interests of consumers.

** See Verizon filing with FCC, Page 6. They are CableCARD 1.0 compatible with interactivity sharply divergent from CableLabs’ CableCARD 2.0 proposal. Some mention of the motivations on page 8.
**** More information on this little MS debacle can be found here.

2 thoughts on “OCAP – Who’s Capping Whom?”

  1. Great article Dave. It’s too bad that everyone can’t just play nice and let the consumer win, but with as much at stake I somehow suspect that this isn’t going to resolve itself overnight. I’d like to imagine that we’ll see a world where someone can have a TiVo, a Mac, a Media Center, a Panasonic or a generic cable box regardless of who provides the content. While there are sure to be many players squeezed out of this industry by monopolistic behavior, I think that the Satellite providers will be the ones hurt the most. They will have a much harder time participating in couch commerce which is where the real money will be made. For now consumers will be forced to wait another decade for the television revolution to take place.

  2. So, the obvious questions…

    With the CES announcement about OCAP support by July 2009 by the major cable companies (http://www.eetimes.com/news/latest/business/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=175802223)
    I’m left wondering…

    Will OCAP based systems mean that CableCARD 1.0 will be phased out any time soon?

    Will the Tivo Series 3 boxes with the CableCARD slots be compatible with OCAP? If not, will they be upgradeable to OCAP?

    Cable companies talk about a future where the digital channel frequencies are not fixed, and CableCARD 1.0 users might be left in the dark in such an environment. Even if you don’t care about on demand video from your cable provider, you might need OCAP anyway to keep your non-cable DVR functioning.

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