There's life in IPTV

IBC boasts new technologies and new entries

Microsoft was back at the show with Joe Seidel, Director of the Worldwide Partner Ecosystem, Microsoft TV Division, telling us that it is in the process of opening up its IPTV eco-system to more and more partners, offering the MediaRoom Interoperability and Qualification Lab (IQ Lab) for digital video encoders.

Microsoft was heavily criticized when it started in IPTV, deciding to build middleware that used a weird unicast/multicast hybrid for fast channel change, insisting on CE as the operating system for its set tops and Windows as the server operating system. It ordered new set top chips and HD chips from just two suppliers, working with only standard server hardware makers and building its own DRM system. It looked to the world like it wanted to own the entire IPTV hardware and software stack without reference to the four years of experience that set top makers, VoD vendors and middleware players had already built up.

At the time Microsoft told us that it would eventually try to build a broad eco-system of suppliers but that even Microsoft had to put on its trousers one leg at a time and it would first make the system work with a limited number of set top makers (Scientific Atlanta, Motorola, Philips, Tatung and Thomson), two chip makers in Sigma and STMicro, server vendors IBM, HP and Sun with EMC on storage, and encoders mostly from Motorola's Modulus.

The first wide open door is at the encoder level and Envivio, Harmonic, Motorola, Tandberg and Thomson have already signed up for the IQ Lab, which means access to Microsoft test tools and consulting, and the various existing hardware that currently make up the Microsoft Mediaroom equipment in its installed base.

Microsoft says that every one of those encoder makers has one or more encoders in use at Mediaroom customers already.

Seidel also promised us that Microsoft would expand its silicon ecosystem beyond the Sigma 8630 and the ST Micro 7100 series, and that it would integrate additional CA/DRMs, pointing out that for hybrid Mediaroom DVB-T systems Nagravision was already supplying conditional access software.

But perhaps it is the fact that even today four years after its announcement, Microsoft Mediaroom is only powering 250,000 IPTV homes globally, with around 100,000 at AT&T, which has meant that other companies have had to fill the void.

Dreampark

Tiny Dreampark, which goes head to head with Orca, and has to also operate in the shadow left by Microsoft's middleware was a rejuvenated company at the show. It started life in web portals, built a user interface with government money in 2002, and was finally attracted to IPTV in a deal with Canal Digital in 2004. In 2005 it was voted best newcomer to IPTV, a fact that must have been helped by the fact that companies at that time were leaving the sector not joining, it may have been the ONLY newcomer.

New CEO ex-Ericsson man Per Skyttvall told us, "We now have 85,000 homes using our software, and we have 3 out of 4 IPTV installations in Sweden, 6 out of 8 in Norway and 3 out of 4 in Finland and Denmark." Now the company has 15 bids out, with only 2 or 3 of these in Scandinavia, it has system integrators appointed in Russia, Lithuania, Poland and the Netherlands, and says that it has a tier 2 Central European customer that it will reveal shortly, and it has integrations with Tilgin and Telsey in set tops, BitBand, Harmonic's Entone and Edgeware in VoD, Verimatric, Conax, NDS, Widevine in DRM.

Dreampark's biggest innovation at the show was to program its IP based DVR using a remote a handset and the ability to offer localized portals (TV screens) in different regions or even to every different home. It also announced Dreamlets, which lets operators put in place interactive applications such as voting on set-top boxes.

In fact interaction was perhaps another buzzword of the show, though most of it was targeted at using a mobile, and that arena was very much overshadowed when earlier this week Ericsson said that it would market to cellular operators, a system of voting and interaction that has been created by Endemol through its reality TV franchises. Ericsson will no doubt soak up oceans of interactive installations due to its dominance of UMTS base stations globally (see separate story).

Latens

Tiny Irish DRM supplier Latens was perhaps the only company at the show on the IPTV side talking about profitability. Sales and marketing director Andy Mathieson was cheerfully talking about the legal fight between two of his rivals Widevine and Verimatrix, which he sees as a fight to the death and the dying struggles of two companies which he says are reliant on venture backing rather than prudent deal making, for their survival.

Latens began life following the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) around Scandinavian IPTV operators where the MPAA was insisting on DRM being installed. Latens was offering to retrofit effective DRM onto their existing set tops. From there it has partnered with middleware supplier Minerva and landed some 60 small IPTV deals in the US. "All that talk about suing one another is just to create fear uncertainty and doubt (FUD) so that customers look elsewhere," he said.

"The DRM market has become one where everyone wants to know who is offering the cheapest system per user. Our way out of that is to widen our offering and we now have a stripped down, basic middleware of our own," he said. This offers broadcast TV and VoD, and has been taken up by one of the early and loyal Latens customers, Lyse Energi, one of the Norwegian energy companies that offers broadband services and IPTV. Lyse has now franchised this middleware offering to 22 other networks bringing a total of 100,000 set tops using it since its launch last year. Latens has also launched a downloadable DRM for the cable market, which complies with the FCC cablecard initiative, and said at the show that it had landed its first customer for this.

"People ask for free DRM and we just walk away, but if someone wants to try our middleware and our DRM, then we can afford to give one of them away cheaply and still cut a profitable deal," said Mathieson. One deal that he says Latens has just landed is the job to protect the pay service in Dubai internet city from operator du. Latens says that du was supposed to upgrade to the Microsoft Mediaroom, software but has changed its mind and needed to retrofit DRM to its own system, which he claims goes to 500,000 customers across the United Arab Emirates, although that seems a high number to us.

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