Microsoft and Sun’s fight enters interactive TV arena

Mar 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

An ugly battle between two software industry heavyweights is throwing a wrench into the development of the American interactive television marketplace.
Confused about whether it will be allowed to use Sun Microsystems’ innovative JavaTV interactive-television authoring tool, the industry has waited patiently during the past several weeks as the feud between Sun and rival digital operating system producer Microsoft surfaced in an unlikely forum-cable trade association Cable Laboratories’ solicitation of comments on its proposed interactive television software specifications.
Cable Labs extended the deadline for submitting comments on a draft of its OCAP (Open Cable Application Platform) specs last week for the third consecutive week, hoping to iron out the wrinkles in its proposal. The organization says no official interim draft of the specs will be drafted for at least another month.
The group is hoping the forthcoming interactive software specification will avoid some of the perceived shortfalls of its forerunner, the ATVEF (Advanced Television Enhancement Forum) spec that industry leaders wrote in 1999. That spec provided paying members who designed interactive content in the commonly used HTML programming code with intellectual property protections but stopped short of shielding companies that employed Sun’s sophisticated JavaTV application. The omission was widely regarded as a concession to Microsoft’s powerful influence.
Microsoft and Sun have been embroiled in a lengthy and heated dispute over whether Microsoft is obligated to compensate Sun for Microsoft’s use of the Java platform. In January, Microsoft announced it had been forced to pay Sun about $20 million in a settlement agreement that observers have viewed as a modest initial victory in an ongoing intellectual property war.
Cable Labs believes its newly drafted OCAP specification will allow interactive content developers to create entertainment using JavaTV without paying Sun any major licensing fees. But it remains unclear whether Microsoft would be able to produce interactive software that complies with the specification without violating the terms of its recently announced settlement agreement with Sun.
“From Cable Labs’ point of view, any company that complies with the spec complies with the spec,” Cable Laboratories Senior Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Raymond said, hoping to sidestep the controversy surrounding Sun and Microsoft. “We’re not picking and choosing which companies comply with the spec.”
But ATVEF Secretary Jerry Pennington acknowledges that the dispute between the two technology behemoths impeded ATVEF when it considered including Java in the spec during its conception in 1999. “Microsoft and Sun are sworn enemies,” Mr. Pennington said. “Certainly it was an issue for us. We didn’t think it [Java] was required to start the business. We decided we could start the business and let someone else answer it later on.”
Industry comments on the OCAP specification draft have yet to be released to the public. However, Drake Smith, chief operating officer at Mixed Signals-which enhances “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” with interactive features-says his company will embrace the new JavaTV provision. “If the industry were to migrate from HTML/Java to pure Java, we’d certainly follow that,” he said. “The more sophisticated the platform, the better for us.”
The advantages of creating content in JavaTV are significant, according to Liberate Technologies Director of Infrastructure Partners Fran Helms. Liberate served as one of the three lead co-authors on the OCAP specifications draft, along with Microsoft and Sun. “JavaTV is very good for applications that are very data-intensive and computation-intensive,” Ms. Helms observed.
Sun Director of Java Evangelism Curtis Sasaki cited rapid updating of scores in sports broadcasts as one of JavaTV’s fortes. Last year at the Western Show in Los Angeles, Sun demonstrated a sample JavaTV-enhanced sports program that it co-produced with Fox Sports. The show was played via a Motorola DCT5000 set-top box, which Mr. Sasaki singled out as one of the only available boxes capable of running content authored in JavaTV.
Mr. Sasaki predicted that the application will grow in popularity. “Once it [JavaTV] is downloaded, you don’t have to use the network,” he explained. “You want something efficient that doesn’t require a lot of bandwidth.”
He dismissed the notion that adversarial relations between Sun and Microsoft are slowing the creation of industry specifications. “It’s not just Sun vs. Microsoft,” he said. “It’s Microsoft trying to argue with the industry in general.”
Microsoft, through an external corporate communications representative, said it supports the ATVEF specification but declined to comment on the JavaTV provision included in the proposed OCAP spec.