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Microsoft sings praises of open standards

But only for digital TV

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  • "We have to create an evolutionary approach in an open standards way"

  • "Common standards are the things that equalise everybody"

  • "It is very important we adopt a common standard space

  • It is very important we work together, along a common path"

A senior Microsoft executive made the above comments. No, really. What you do need to know though is that they came from Paul Mitchell, Microsoft's senior director of Microsoft TV Platforms Group, speaking at the Interactive TV Show Europe in London this morning.

This is digital TV, a very different world from personal computers but one in which Microsoft is growing increasingly interested in as Internet technology is pulled into set-top boxes. MS also smells the chance to work its particular brand of magic on the TV industry - the opening has already been made.

Raising standards

Standards in digital TV are a complete mess. There are six recognised standard-making organisations in the TV world. And then there are at least another six lobbying standard groups. And then there are the standards that TV companies are actually using in the real world (five of them).

However, nearly all of the new standards being written include HTML as a crucial element. And most of them include Java. And none of them work with one another.

Mitchell tells us that no more than three per cent of any TVs in the world currently work with one another. The reason is steeped in history - every country has set up its own television network, often with great interest and money from the government. It was inevitable that every country would come up with a different method and standard.

This is the modern global world though and the "holy grail" is interoperability. And the greatest example of high-content global communication? The Internet.

"Interactivity is no longer about film making - it is software development. Using the right tool for the job," said Mitchell. "We need a common language infrastructure."

He shows a schematic for the future: all the different standards and languages compiled into a common executable format, then through an intermediate language to a common language. And everyone is overjoyed.

(Interestingly, all the standards on the slide, save one, are Internet languages and standards)

We asked Mitchell the glaringly obvious question: Is Microsoft putting itself forward as the author of this new universal language? "Everyone would go crazy if I said Microsoft was going to do that," he told us. "No, we are looking to work with others and come up with some common standards."

Currently the front runner in many people's eyes is called MHP (Multimedia Home Platform). It includes Java and HTML. The head of the industry body Digital Television Group, Peter Marshall, says he thinks it's the future. Apparently it has become infallable in Germany.

But, according to Microsoft, it is unwieldy ("large, monolithic") and too expensive. Only the broadcasters that back it, and they can back what they like because they don't have to actually put it in the set-top boxes. Hmmm.

Allow us to theorise for a moment. There is no way that one company could control TV: the huge variations, power bases and intrinsic interest that nation-states have in this most powerful (and controllable) medium make that impossible.

However, if you were able to persuade all these disparate groups to agree to work towards closer standards to all their mutual benefit and then you were to effectively control the common interface that all these PCs, sorry TVs, use to display their content. Well, that would put you in quite a powerful position, wouldn't it?

We asked Mitchell about how digital TV fits in with what Microsoft does. "As soon as you get to digital TV, it's all ones and zeros. When you have that, you need software and that's what we do." ®

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