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AT&T trials JavaTV

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JavaOne Remember interactive TV? After years of tub thumping, backroom arm twisting, and tactical releases and untactical retreats, Sun Microsystems investment in putting Java into interactive TV finally looks like paying off.

Sun has never knowingly undersold anything before, so we were surprised to hear developers at JavaOne in San Francisco telling us, quite unprompted, 'that they'd better do something for the TV platform' this year. Once we'd smoked them out, and decided that they weren't paid stooges (ZD Talkback forums have made us all cynics) an interesting story starts to emerge.

Java-based interactive TV will be deployed by AT&T by the end of the year, Sun said yesterday, and showed off a prototype of the General Instruments DCT 5000 set top box that AT&T will use.

Actually, that's a bit of a misnomer. This box sits on top of the set about as comfortably as a mattress balances on top of a bottle of wine - as the song goes - so that acronym will have to be revised.

Back in February the European TV standards body finally ratified MHP (Multimedia Home Platform) the APIs for developing interactive digital TV content. Although this was correctly interpreted as the result of stop-Microsoft pressure from the European Commission (the executive branch of the EU), there was much bargaining between Sun and broadcasters and manufacturers too.

It now looks like there's just enough Java in the spec to please Sun, and the Java that's in there is open enough to please the manufacturers and broadcasters. So the likes of OpenTV (Sun's Mountain View neighbours) are openly talking up a migration to the DVB-J APIs. The Far East markets seem to coalescing around the Java model too, but most critically, the will to go it alone with the US-only technologies and the resulting cost that result - as with GSM - seems to be collapsing.

Sources confirm that the European Java TV standard is pretty much a shoe-in.

PowerTV, which provides an embedded OS, middleware developer kits, thinks so, and has pre-empted the formal US specification with Java classes which it reckons are close enough to require only minor modification when it's finally ratified. We got the same picture from Canal+, which delivers cable Java boxes.

Eric Chu, the Sun guy responsible for both its wireless and consumer electronics businesses told The Register that AT&T's year-end deployment target really amounts to trials, with full consumer roll-out slated for Xmas 2001. Chu is selling JavaTV to broadcasters on the basis of a lot more than triggers to webpages in the digital MPEG stream. JavaTV doesn't require a backchannel - a path to the head end - he says, as most of what couch potatoes will need will be downloaded in the Java applet. Sun's frameworks also allow broadcasters to customise everything from the program guide to the windows, too, and will holds out the promise of upgrading the decoders to support future streaming standards. That's big if, that assumes that the MPEG decoding will be done in software, but it makes a good pitch to punters who their expect analog sets to last for twenty years.

Which brings us to that AT&T box. General Instruments - now a Motorola subsidiary - showed a box running a MIPS chip, 32Mb of RAM... and Windows CE. We reckoned that back at the height of the set-top boxing slugfest a couple years ago, Microsoft agreed to subsidise AT&T to use Windows CE as the base OS. And here they are ... sponsoring arch-enemy Sun. ®

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