Aiming to help financially beleaguered operators make the most of on-demand programming services that use the current generation of set-top boxes, Microsoft has announced the TV Foundation Edition, its latest effort to gain a software foothold in the cable television market.
The announcement, made by Microsoft chairman and chief software architect, Bill Gates, in Chicago during an opening panel session at The National Show, the annual convention put on by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), had been expected for months by industry insiders.
Microsoft got a big vote of support for its cable software when Comcast president and chief executive officer, Brian Roberts, said during the opening panel with Gates that the cable operator would use the software during a trial with some of its subscribers later this year.
Microsoft also announced that Mexican operator Cablevisión (CVC), a subsidiary of Grupo Televisa in Mexico, plans to use Microsoft software to deliver new digital services to subscribers, starting with the Microsoft TV Interactive Program Guide (IPG) this year and then rolling out Foundation Edition next year.
However, even though Comcast officials did not announce details of its trial, it was the US operator's plans that caught the attention of industry watchers.
"If Comcast goes through with this plan, it's a big deal," Gartner analyst, Jim Brancheau, said. "It's a recognition that the architecture looks good, it's a sign that the door is starting to open on this market."
When the Internet bubble burst two years ago, it became apparent that manufacturers were not going to roll out advanced set-top boxes as quickly as they had hoped, and cable operators put a damper on aggressive plans to roll out new digital TV services. Microsoft's first versions of its TV platform failed to gain any traction because they were developed at a time when it seemed that cable operators were going to buy into advanced set-top boxes, Brancheau and other analysts said.
But the TV Foundation Edition was the latest shot in a salvo of products geared for the current generation of set-top boxes, director of marketing for Microsoft's MS TV unit, Ed Graczyk[cq], said. The first product in this family, IPG, designed to make it easier for TV watchers to find shows and customise their viewing, was launched a year ago at the NCTA show, he said.
The Foundation Edition had some of the capabilities that Microsoft offered with previous iterations of its TV software but had been "completely redesigned, from the ground up" for the current generation of set-top boxes, Graczyk said.
IPG could be bought separately but also works as one of the major components in Foundation Edition, he said.
Foundation was an "end-to-end software platform", Graczyk said. As such, it offered a variety of capabilities designed to allow cable operators to manage and brand on-demand cable television services as well as track customer behavior.
For example, Foundation Edition allowed operators to create On-Demand Storefronts,channels designed to let consumers easily find and purchase a variety of on-demand offerings.
Foundation Edition also provides authoring tools integrated with the Microsoft .Net Compact Framework TV Edition, designed to let operators broadcast a variety of services and applications including games, news and weather information services.
The part of the software that was deployed on the operator head-end also offered a variety of analytics and reporting features, that cable companies could use to track consumer behavior and target special deals and advertising to certain demographic segments of their audience, Graczyk said.
IPG runs on very low-end set top boxes, such as the Motorola DCT 1000 and 1200 boxes. Foundation Edition wouldn't work on such extremely low-end boxes, but would work with, for example, the Motorola DCT 2000, which has been rolled out to some 20 million subscribers, Graczyk said.
"The news here is that Microsoft has re-architected its software to meet the requirements of operators with the current crop of set-top boxes," Brancheau said. "But aside from any specific features [of the new software], the bottom line is that Microsoft is still at it, and appears to be in the market for the long haul. They can't be faulted for lack of persistence."