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CONSUMER ELECTRONICS : Final spec is within sight on Multimedia Home Platform for interactive TV (ITV) in Europe, according to CE manufacturers and broadcasters who gave first live demonstration of system at last week's Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) in Berlin. But as we reported earlier (TVD Aug 30 p8), it looks like "platform" war is shaping up, and stakes extend beyond Continent and British Isles.
Despite use of "TAK" platform based on Microsoft Windows CE in upcoming "enhanced" sets from RCA parent Thomson, Redmond, Wash.-based software giant isn't likely to dominate ITV as it does PC universe. Already in Europe, Geneva-based Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) group of set-makers and broadcasters is close to adopting MHP standard based on Sun Microsystem's Java-TV language. Java-based environment for ITV also is under consideration by ATSC in U.S., said executives of Philips and Sun.
IFA attendees got first eyefull of MHP in Berlin last week, when Grundig, Panasonic, Philips and Sony demonstrated live ITV programming from BBC and France's Canal-Plus, transmitted by Astra satellite TV service. ITV programs included quiz/game shows and auction with audience bidding. Demonstration moves on to IBC in Amsterdam this week.
Feed also could have come from terrestrial TV or cable, as Java-based MHP is "transport agnostic," said Eric Chu, group mgr. of Sun's Consumer & Embedded Initiative for Java. He told us that besides working over any TV carrier, MHP can be used on any TV system -- Europe's analog PAL and SECAM or digital DVB, or analog NTSC and digital ATSC used in U.S. and elsewhere. "That's important if you're a CNN or ESPN and want your content to run all over the world," Chu said. "MHP running on a common language abstracts it [the programming] from those different factors. You don't have to code your content for different systems."
Microsoft and Thomson make similar claims for their jointly owned and developed TAK platform, broadcast version of Windows CE whose acronym has no meaning. Thomson also is DVB member and backs MHP, but executives told us in Berlin that company doesn't believe that Java language should be mandatory for MHP.
Choice of ITV platform might hang less on technology than on cost and politics. Sources told us Java license-fee per set is small fraction of royalty Microsoft is believed to want for Windows CE-based sets. But even if license fee were nonissue, sources told us, most set-makers are reluctant to base ITV on platform from single supplier -- particularly Microsoft. "The DVB and International Standards Organization will not select any software like Windows that comes from one manufacturer only," said Paul Bristow, point man for Philips on MHP. Meanwhile, Java can be licensed from many sources besides Sun, Chu and others told us.
Most compelling example of ITV's potential came in Berlin when MHP supporter Nokia demonstrated its MediaScreen. Portable LCD tablet downloaded Internet data transmitted terrestrially from experimental digital TV stations of German broadcasters ARD and SFB, then uploaded return commands with its built-in GSM cellphone -- including votes in a poll. To emphasize mobile applications of ITV, Nokia and Volkswagen even installed MediaScreen and wireless keyboard in car. European DVB uses COFDM transmission system that's more immune to multipath and optimized for mobile reception, compared with ATSC-standard 8-VSB modulation used for DTV in U.S. (see related report, Bcst.-Cable section).
European broadcasters lined up for MHP include BBC, Bertelsmann, Canal-Plus and Italy's RAI, among others. Ireland's RTE is in discussions with group, RTE Dir.-Digital Planning Peter Branagan told us. RTE's forthcoming DTV system has ideal infrastructure for true, real-time interactivity as TVs and set- top boxes themselves incorporate low-power UHF transmitter to send signals back to broadcaster. System, called WINDS (Wireless Interactive Network for Digital Services), thus doesn't depend on telephone modem for return path, Branagan told us. It's based on French-developed SFDMA (Synchronous Frequency Division Multiplex Access) and works somewhat like cellphone system, with TV return signal hopping among 1,000 channels to send upstream message to broadcast tower or repeaters in smaller cells, he said.
Although RTE sets share return channels opportunistically, upclick takes just fraction of sec., Branagan said. Also, each set is individually addressable, and signals are encrypted for secure e-commerce. Besides ability to transmit outgoing signal, WINDS sets will have 25 GB hard drive recorder to store video-on- demand movies, Branagan said.
Separately, hit game shows will go interactive this fall. Columbia TriStar TV, producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, said viewers with WebTV service will be able to participate simultaneously online while shows air -- and have chance to win prizes. Also, next week's Emmy Awards broadcast has interactive component: Audience can vote its choice online through ExciteAtHome Web site, with results tallied during program.
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