MS IPTV is lovely, says MS IPTV chap

Check the 150ms channel change on that...

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So are we all going to see Microsoft on every other TV screen? After all, a TV service that says “brought to you by Microsoft technology,” is about the best advertising that Microsoft can get, and potentially it lasts forever. “In some case the operator wants to rely on the Microsoft brand and actively wants it on the screen. In other systems the consumer may not even be aware that it is Microsoft software inside the device. But even when we are shown, we are always the “ingredient” brand, never the main brand,” explains Gracyzk.

But Gracyzk certainly cleared up a number of issues for us. Microsoft TV Foundation software is still very much in use at US cable operator Comcast, and it has rolled it out in Washington State (around Microsoft?) and in November it will go to Seattle (around Microsoft?). Comcast bought 5 million licenses of the set top software Gracyzk points out, “They didn’t buy ‘up to’ five million copies, they’re all paid for”

This is very different software. “That’s because the underlying network is so different. It is a QAM based broadcast network.” But surely it is trying to do the same thing, albeit on a very different network “The Comcast system looks very different because it has a limited infrastructure. Our system will run on existing cable set tops, and they already have that infrastructure in place. We have been able to bring them new walled garden services, new applications and games.

“But you cannot do the same on a cable network as you can on a pure IP network. If you have VoIP and IPTV on an IP network you can have a notification across the entire system. If there is a phone call you can have a caller ID event which integrates the phone call onto the TV screen.

“The cable operators are trying to do this, and there is a Foundation TV project to do this, but it is very much harder. The phone and the TV are two incompatible network infrastructures,” says Gracyzk. Given that this type of translation and transcoding is usually the job of a set of network gateways and that these can be co-ordinated by systems like IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) we asked if Microsoft used this.

Gracyzk described IMS as “backoffice middleware,” and says that Microsoft has its own version in Connected Services Framework, which we understood not to be anything like video ready. “No, it’s not, but we can absolutely integrate the applications that it does cover, onto IPTV.”

IMS was defined to allow the alien world of 3G mobile to interact with the IP protocol. We can see every reason why cable operators would need something similar to keep their IP elements and non-IP elements talking to each other.

Giving it some OMP

Another issue that Gracyzk cleared up for us was the future for Alcatel’s Open Media Platform. “OMP has existing customers and we are working on a migration path for them.”

“They have a relatively small number of installations. And the old OMP staff are doing systems integration and new applications for existing customers,” Gracyzk said.

But how can there be a migration path if the new system needs new set tops, new multicast protocols, new middleware, and specialized Microsoft servers and can only use Windows Media DRM? It’s more a case of “ripping it out and throwing it away,” kind of migration.

And why would you have a migration path if the number of customers are “so small?”

“Sorry I don’t get your point,” stonewalled Gracyzk, when we raised this.

So onto the $64,000 question. Is Swisscom late with its Microsoft IPTV system because of delays in Microsoft’s software? Did Telstra throw it out because it didn’t think it would work? And can Gracyzk make sense of the weird set of hybrid trials at Telecom Italia, which use both OMP and Microsoft IPTV?

“Swisscom has just changed its approach. It was going for a “big bang” approach and now it is going in two phases, ramping up in 2006. The delays were due to a set top box that Swisscom wanted to offer with a DVR, that had an internal hard drive. The trial ran with one that used an external hard drive and they couldn’t get one with an internal drive in time. It was supplied by Thomson in the trial.”

Thomson won’t be happy to hear it’s at fault, since it managed to keep its name out of the story entirely up until now. But the explanation is fair and was a feature of the initial statement from Swisscom when it said “The technology was deemed not yet suitable for serial delivery, in particular since the set-top box has no internal hard disk and only one television channel is available.” But that statement has since been removed from the Swisscom website, so it’s hard to go back and check.

A big puzzle

“You have to realize that IPTV is a big puzzle with lots of pieces, which is why people want to buy it all from one source, the encoder, the set tops, the software, the network upgrade and the middleware. And there are always different requirements. The pieces of Swisscom’s puzzle are coming together at the end of 2005 and early 2006.

“For SBC Communications it is on target for this fall, when its first deployments will happen,” said Gracyzk.

“Telstra just decided that its network was nowhere near ready for IPTV and it was still working on content deals. And for Telecom Italia, you’ll just have to talk to them,” he said.

“In our Swisscom trial we were unicasting individual streams to different individuals within a home, and to a DVR, and only using just 1.8 Mbps of bandwidth using our codec,VC-1,” added Gracyzk, “So we know it wasn’t our software.”

What had really made Gracyzk call Faultline was the fact that in one of our pieces we repeated a Widevine claim that in one situation it had seen the security on a Microsoft IPTV system force the channel change to go out to 17 seconds.

“We offer sub-second channel change and we make a big feature of it,” said Gracyzk. “For cable and other IPTV systems it takes one to two seconds. And I’ve seen it take up to seven seconds at trade shows.”

Again there are two ways of seeing this comment.

It’s one thing for Widevine to tell us that on one occasion in a trial it took 17 seconds to change channels on a Microsoft system, due to the DRM. True or not that’s a small company attacking one piece of the puzzle and telling a story about a monopoly organization. It’s quite another when Gracyzk turns around and says that it takes seven seconds for his competitors to change a channel at an exhibition. True or not, they might see that as a false and misleading claim from an established monopoly.

But there are more details we extracted from Gracyzk. The one area of flexibility right now with Microsoft is the codec, and most operators have selected H.264 (MPEG 4 Level 10 AVC). “The network operator decides the video encoding standard, whether it’s VC-1 or MPEG 4 or MPEG 2 and we support all of them.”

“The client is written in C,” not C# as we all thought. “It is written to take as much of the heavy lifting off the set top and put it onto the servers in the network. For instance if a viewer wants to search across all types of media, whether they are broadcast or VoD, instead of running that search on the set top, with whatever data is held on the client, we run it on a server, in the network.”

“A lot of IPTV solutions suffer from this. They take a cable approach to design, whereas we take a next generation TV approach,” concluded Gracyzk.

Copyright © 2005, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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