An interview with Jason Steinhorn, the lead program manager of Microsoft's TV division, on the nature of interactive television, competing standards, and the company's efforts to succeed where others — including itself — have failed.
Consumer electronics are a significant part of the future of embedded systems — few people doubt that — but the right mix of connectivity, computing, and home entertainment is taking a long time to emerge. That's why companies like Microsoft give the field so much attention. The company's TV division, Microsoft TV, is building what it hopes will be a leading platform for various kinds of television-based software applications. Michael Barr interviewed Jason Steinhorn, the division's lead program manager, to get an idea of how Microsoft sees this changing market, to learn about the technologies and standards that will shape it, and to hear how the company plans to avoid the missteps made by earlier efforts to establish interactive television as a successful consumer technology.
Michael Barr: Please begin by telling us a little bit about what iTV is and how the technology is being used today.
Jason Steinhorn: Generally, interactive television (iTV) is any technology that aims to enhance the TV-viewing experience. In many cases, it is as an opportunity to allow viewers to personalize their TV experience while at the same time turning the television into a more entertaining and useful device.
The most basic and perhaps widely recognized example of iTV is the interactive program guide. An IPG, like that available in many digital satellite/cable boxes, allows the viewer to easily navigate a list of current and future programs using their remote control. And not only does the IPG give access to program listings, but some program guides even offer extended program descriptions, reminders when your favorite programs are about to start, and the ability to search listings based on keywords, actors, or related programs. The IPG is a basic form of television enhancement, but one that illustrates many of the core components of iTV. In today's world of 250+ channels, it plays a critical role in helping people decide what to watch and how to plan their future watching/recording.
Video-on-demand (VOD) is another soon-to-be-popular iTV technology. VOD is like having access to Blockbuster through your remote, and unlike pay per view services, subscribers can choose from a robust video library provided by the cable company, and control the content like it is a VHS tape with rewind, fast forward and pause capabilities. This sort of technology is expected to have a tremendous impact on the cable industry and many people's TV-viewing habits.
Another widely recognized iTV technology is personal video recording (PVR). PVR relies on embedding a hard drive into the television set-top box, and using the drive to store and manipulate the audio and video streams coming into the house. Much like a VCR, PVR devices allow programs to be recorded and played back. Because the video streams are saved digitally, PVR recordings are higher quality than VHS tapes and provide random access to the data, making it possible to instantaneously jump to any location in the stream. The difference is analogous to the difference between listening to music on an audio cassette versus a CD.
Put these technologies together, and you begin to see a massive shift in the way people watch television. Instead of television remaining the passive broadcast medium it has been since its inception, the TV becomes a personalized information and entertainment device allowing users to define their own entertainment experience. With new technologies like VOD and PVR, the TV viewer can decide what they want to watch and when they want to watch it.
MB: Interactive television, particularly Internet on TV, has been tried before, but has never been all that successful with consumers. What differentiates what you're doing now from those failures?
JS: When the Internet took off in the '90s, it seemed that a logical step for iTV was to bring a pure Internet experience to the television set. WebTV, now MSN TV, is a pioneer in this category. It allows users to surf the web, send and receive email, and communicate in real time with other Internet users right from their living rooms.
What we've learned from MSN TV is that with a high penetration of PCs in the home today, many U.S. television viewers don't want to use their TV for tasks like surfing and emailing; they can do that more effectively on their PC instead. That said, MSN TV continues to have a large fan base among people who typically don't have a PC in their home but want an easy and inexpensive way to keep in touch via email and browse the web.
MB: Let's turn to the technology a bit more now. What standards are there in the area of iTV and how is MSTV involved with these?
JS: There has been a big push to standardize various television components to enable companies to bring iTV services to market more quickly across diverse geographies and technologies. This includes the transport mechanisms used to deliver content, the presentation models used to display content, and even the programmatic interfaces used to generate iTV applications. Unfortunately, with a technology and medium as popular as television, and with so many people, companies, and countries involved in the early design and implementation of iTV systems, it's been difficult to apply a uniform set of standards across the industry, though progress is being made slowly.
Over the previous ten years, new iTV standards have evolved mainly around Internet technologies. For example, one of the most popular content standards defined in the 1990's was the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum. ATVEF relied on an HTML presentation engine and common web scripting interfaces to allow network operators to stream enhanced content alongside both analog and digital television programming. Unfortunately, the ATVEF content standard proved limiting and never gained as much momentum as had been hoped.
One major obstacle to ubiquitous iTV standards is the lack of a globally uniform broadcast technology. Analog television encoding and transport standards have been around for 50 years, but differ in various regions of the world. And digital broadcast technologies are even less standardized.
As an example, in much of Europe, the government regulates digital television standards. Many European countries have standardized on a protocol stack called Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) for delivering basic television programming. DVB is based on the MPEG-2 Systems specification, and is well-entrenched in European cable, satellite, and over-the-air broadcast networks. Contrast that with North America, where the digital television world is ruled by four separate entities: DirecTV and Dish Network over satellite and Motorola and Scientific Atlanta over cable. Each of these operators defines their own broadcast protocols. On top of this, each of the proprietary standards is divergent from the FCC-mandated ATSC standard, which is used to transmit digital television over the air in the United States.
Another hurdle facing standards in this industry is the set-top hardware deployed today. There is a huge disparity in capability between the currently deployed bases of low-end and high-end television hardware. For example, in North America, there is an installed base of millions of digital cable boxes with 2MB or less of total flash and RAM. Contrast this with some of the high-end boxes that have upwards of 8MB of flash and 16MB of RAM, and you start to see why it's hard to define a common set of standards for the technology. Those people that have paid two or three times the cost for a high-end box are going to expect more than what is offered by the standards that address the technical capabilities of the low-end boxes.
All that said, standardizing iTV technologies is a high priority for the industry and for Microsoft TV. Microsoft is represented on all major television industry panels and consortiums, and we work closely not only with our partners but also with our competitors to drive standards that will ultimately benefit TV viewers around the world.
MB: Is Microsoft TV building such products itself or instead enabling the development of these products by providing software infrastructure components?
JS: The goal of Microsoft TV is to provide the best underlying TV software platform. On top of this platform, we and others can integrate specific applications and services based on the needs of network operators. For example, a cable operator might wish to offer instant messaging as part of its iTV services. The operator could incorporate the MSN Messenger service, which we have adapted for TV, choose a different one from another company, or develop their own. The idea is to provide a flexible and scalable solution that fits any network operator's needs.
Last May, Microsoft introduced Microsoft TV IPG, which cable operators can deploy over networks running “thin client” set-top boxes with very little memory and processing power. Microsoft TV IPG brings improved speed and ease-of-use of the IPG to these low-end devices, millions of which are in people's homes today. We also offer integrated support for VOD. Viewers in Oregon will be the first to check out Microsoft TV IPG as two cable operators there — Uvision and Willamette Broadband — start to deploy IPG this year.
MB: Does Microsoft TV hope to open such platforms up to third party software developers, as they did so successfully for the PC market? Or is this essentially a black-box system?
JS: We very much want to encourage third party innovation on top of the MSTV platform and have been reaching out to developers for the last few years for that specific purpose. We have been active in the developer community through the Microsoft TV Developer Program, with members from twenty different countries. Our goal is to provide a platform for developers to create applications and services that will enable the most compelling and valuable iTV services for consumers.
For more information about the Microsoft TV Developer Program, visit the Microsoft TV website at: http://www.microsoft.com/TV.
Jason Steinhorn is lead program manager for Microsoft TV, a division of Microsoft that develops software enabling a wide range of digital and interactive TV services. He holds a BS in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland and has been involved with the iTV industry and embedded software development for over a decade.
Michael Barr is the editor in chief of Embedded Systems Programming. He is a lecturer at the University of Maryland and author of Programming Embedded Systems in C and C++ (O'Reilly). Contact him by e-mail at .