Making Microsoft an ITV

Mar 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Age: 39.
Title: Senior vice president of Microsoft’s television service platform.
Duties: Responsible for core businesses of Microsoft’s WebTV interactive analog television service and Microsoft TV digital interactive cable platform.
Location: Redmond, Wash.
Education: B.S. degrees in mathematics and computer science, Oregon State University.
Microsoft TV’s competitors: Liberate Technologies, OpenTV, PowerTV, AOL TV (a service that runs with Liberate’s software).
For a company that has enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the personal computer operating systems industry, one wouldn’t think Microsoft worries much about the competition. But in the hot interactive television software industry, Microsoft has been busy trying to differentiate its product from competitors Liberate, OpenTV and PowerTV.
Microsoft TV services Senior Vice President Jon DeVaan is the man responsible for helping the company do that. “The biggest thing we do differently is we are making a platform that is broader and deeper than our competitors,” he said. “The industry is truly young. The technology has to be very broad and deep to do the kind of experimentation that needs to be done. … We like to use the term enhanced TV rather than interactive TV. It goes beyond e-mail and chat and shopping. It starts with digital video recording but also goes with being able to understand a person’s preferences, really being able to help people find the shows they want to watch.”
Mr. DeVaan, who has extensive experience as an engineer and product developer in Microsoft’s personal computer division, is now able to put his PC expertise to work in locating Microsoft TV’s place in the overall technological landscape. “I think the convergence is happening with a cable modem on the set-top box,” Mr. DeVaan said. “I think that where people decide to interact with digital services, that will happen with a lot of different devices. The digital set-top box with a cable modem will really be the hub of that network in the house, where all those devices connect. That cable modem is shared with the PC in the house as well as the [television] set-top box.”
With Mr. DeVaan’s technological product development background, the issue of standards for convergent products is naturally on his mind. The subject is one that the whole industry is now grappling with. “I think there has to be a formal public standard created,” he said. “When you look at HAVi [an international trade association that has promulgated standards for interoperability of entertainment appliances], that stops short of being the standard we need to make a breakthrough. I think [the standard] will be broader than what HAVi covers.”
All Mr. DeVaan’s ideas about convergence won’t become a reality, however, until Microsoft TV’s product is actually deployed by multiple system operators such as AT&T Broadband. When asked when such deployments are likely to occur, Mr. DeVaan projected, “I think you’ll see something pretty darn quick on a trial basis.”
Mr. DeVaan is candid in acknowledging the challenges faced by a PC software company breaking into the new media markets: “When you look at the TV market overall and you include interactive TV in it, the value chain of how TV reaches the consumer is pretty complicated,” he said. “There are a lot of pieces involved. … We struggle sometimes in how to operate effectively in all these different industries. But we’re open about that. While we might not understand immediately what the most important things are to people in these different industries, we’re very much dedicated to figuring that out.”
On the other hand, Mr. DeVaan feels that his high-tech expertise is an asset for Microsoft TV’s business. “I think the most important thing in my background is the ability to build a very solid business and deliver on the technical creation of that business,” he said.
Mr. DeVaan’s sphere of influence doesn’t end at Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., offices. He also sits on the board of StarBand, an high-speed satellite television and Internet service that allows for full two-way interactivity. StarBand has formed strategic partnerships with both Microsoft and EchoStar.