Sun's Java TV API
2/20/99

You may remember the hype about Interactive TV (ITV) back in the early 1990's. By now, everyone was supposed to be watching video-on-demand (VOD) and banking from home. One by one the projects died because they were prohibitively expensive. However, a lot of this expertise leaked over to Internet development and now the concept of convergence is once again raising it head, only this time backed by standards from the Internet such as Java.

Before the Internet broke on the scene, Java was originally conceived as a light weight language to allow consumer electronics devices such as VCRs, game systems, TVs and set-top boxes to talk to each other. After a brief detour onto the web, Java is back at it roots and Sun has just strengthened its position by coming out with the new Java TV API.

The Java TV API is going to be released in full at the end of Q1 1999. However, Sun has already released a list of partners and some info on this development environment. Java makes a lot of sense for set-top development. With many different manufacturers developing set-top boxes it makes sense to have one development environment that can be implemented on a variety of platforms using the Java Virtual Machine concept. Set-top box manufacturers are using a very wide variety of chip sets and configurations, however, if they each write to the Java standards, they should be able to easily port applications between different cable systems. In the near future, each different cable environment may be its own system, as difficult to port between as different operating systems are today. Huge costs can be associated with porting from one environment to another. Developers may need to start nearly from scratch. By using Java as a de-coupling layer to abstract the software from the hardware, content creation companies can literally write once and run anywhere.

The Java TV API extends Java into the Television environment. It allows Java to receive and control information from devices such remote controls and other consumer electronics. The set-top box, powered by Java, will become the center of the audio visual information center of the home for many people. As thing exist now computers will probably saturate at about 60% US market penetration. To push Internet access and some limited computer applications such as word processing and e-mail into the remainder of homes the set-top box will become the device.

Unlike the original development of Interactive TV that was done by large telecom companies, the new Interactive TV is more of a grass roots effort utilizing development tools that are proven on the Internet. By doing this, ITV can pull from the huge pool of Java developers already creating content for the web and for server side Java. By building on this pool of developers, Java based applications for the web can be greatly reduced in cost compared to applications that were developed for early interactive TV systems.

Sun and Java face some significant external pressures to creating this utopia of write once play anywhere. Microsoft wants Windows CE to be the operating system that powers the majority of these new digital set-top boxes. Microsoft would like to become the de-facto standard much the way they have for the desktop OS environment. Microsoft has made some early strides by purchasing companies such as WebTV. WebTV, with about 250,000 users, will soon be converting over to Windows CE from its current proprietary standard. However, Sun has not been sitting still. They have lined up a large number of companies that will be supporting Java. These companies cover a wide range including set-top box developers, content developers, authoring tool creators and large cable infrastructure companies.

Set-top box manufacturers have agreed to back Sun's initiatives in hopes of lowering the costs of developing applications for their devices. Let's take a look at some companies and how they are hoping to use the Java TV API.

Toshiba is the creator of set-top boxes. Toshiba hopes that standards will help to speed development of this new market. They also have experience developing laptop computers that should come in useful in the set-top market.
Matsushita is a major consumer electronics manufacturer with brand names such as Technics and Panasonic. They are looking to make sure that their consumer electronics can interact in a home audio-visual network.
Motorola makes Hellcat and Blackbird set-top boxes that will feature Java Virtual Machines. In addition Motorola is looking into featuring Java in its cellular phone products.
Scientific-Atlanta creates Explorer 2000 a cable digital set-top box. Using Java they would like to have the set-top box become the center of the home network.
Sony wants to use Personal Java to wire together the home entertainment environment and make devices communicate online gaming and set-top boxes. They would also like to deliver their entertainment assets over secure networks and work out piracy issues and security in set-top boxes.
Phillips is developing set-top boxes as well as interactive applications such as multi-camera interactive sporting events.

Sun is covering all parts of the interactive television food change. The creation of easy-to-use authoring tools will help to drive prices down on development by allowing people other than programmers to develop interactive content. Look for companies that have long developed CD-ROM and Internet authoring tools to begin to enter this market in the next several years.

OpenTV has begun development of authoring tools such as MPEG encoders and tools like Open Author a Windows NT based authoring tool for interactive TV.
Veon creates interactive Video tools. In addition they create authoring tools for the Real G2 Player. Internet and Interactive TV tools will start to converge in the next several years.

Cable companies have also chosen to work with Sun on Java standards.

HongKong Telecom has 80,000 Java-based interactive television systems already installed
TCI chosen Java technology as the standards application environment for development in their cable network. TCI has also hedged their bets by working with Microsoft.

In an ideal world standards such as Sun's Java TV API would allow any application you develop to run on any computer or set-top box running a Java virtual machine. In reality, the diversity of devices that will be running Java will make this extremely difficult. However, if Sun can hold off Microsoft's Windows CE and keep the Java market from fracturing we may avoid the incompatibilities and problems that come with porting between different operating systems.

Jeff Rule is a principal at RuleWeb Development specializing in DHTML, SMIL, Shockwave and Java based multimedia enhancements for advanced media sites. His first book, Dynamic HTML: The HTML Developer's Guide was published in December 1998 by Addison Wesley Longman. It features many DHTML multimedia examples from his popular DHTML Demo's web site.