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iSurfTV on Gemstar turf

Mar 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

iSurfTV is emerging as a would-be dragon slayer in the interactive television industry, hoping to pierce the intellectual property armor of litigious interactive-programming-guide behemoth Gemstar-TV Guide.

The start-up, which like its nemesis creates directories designed to help consumers navigate their way through the multifaceted interactive television landscape, is preparing to announce that the U.S. Patent Office has approved the company’s first patent to produce a 3-D programming portal.

Although Gemstar has amassed the industry’s most comprehensive patent portfolio for producing interactive program guides, iSurfTV believes its new patent will allow it to collect licensing fees from multiple system operators for use of its directory.

“You can deploy our guide with only a license from iSurfTV,” said Gene Feroglia, the company’s chief executive officer.

WorldGate Communications has also developed an interactive guide to compete with Gemstar’s.

iSurfTV’s programming directory is designed to seize the viewer’s attention through its enhanced-depth design while providing viewers with previews of programming as they click their remotes through the guide’s contents.

Dan Kikinis, who serves as the company’s intellectual property officer, said iSurfTV’s law firm, Blakely Sokoloff Taylor & Zafman, performed extensive analysis of Gemstar’s patent collection before advising iSurfTV.

To date, the start-up has filed 70 patent applications with the U.S. Patent Office for its interactive programming guides.

Mr. Kikinis said that after iSurfTV was founded in 1998, its principals quickly realized it would have to develop patents to fend off legal attacks on its service. A venture-backed company, iSurfTV is now hoping to complete its third round of funding at a time when many dot-coms have been shunned by investors.

“One of the reasons the dot-com bubble burst is no one had any real property,” Mr. Kikinis said. “There were a lot of me-too dot-coms.”

Although the company is currently negotiating with MSOs and satellite television purveyors about the possibility of incorporating the programming directory, Mr. Kikinis acknowledged that the interactive programming guide industry’s reputation for aggressive legal defenses of patent portfolios has presented a stumbling block for iSurfTV in its marketing efforts.

“Of course there is always the issue of fear in the patent arena,” he lamented. “You can sometimes smell fear [of litigious tactics].”

Unlike other interactive television software companies, such as OpenTV and Liberate Technologies, iSurfTV does not provide comprehensive middleware designed to run disparate interactive programming elements in concert on a single set-top box.

“We’re an additional middleware layer,” Mr. Kikinis said.

The company’s programming guide does not include an Internet browser but allows a Web browser to be paired with it.

Mr. Kikinis was careful to counter the industry’s perception that iSurfTV is solely an Internet-on-television application.

“The name iSurf comes from interactive surfaces,” he said. “It has nothing to do with surfing the Web.”

Interactive programming guides are often viewed as the interactive television industry’s analogue to major Internet portals such as Yahoo! and America Online in the respect that the guides serve as a gateway to multiple content destinations.

But Mr. Feroglia said such an entry portal is only one of several versions of the guide that iSurfTV has designed. One breed of the directory can be viewed on the perimeter of the television screen during an entire broadcast.

“Our whole view here is to offer complete flexibility to the satellite company or the MSO,” Mr. Feroglia said.

To date, iSurfTV has raised about $10 million in venture capital.