May 6, 2002 10:45 AM PDT

Microsoft tunes in to TV programming

Microsoft may have muted its interactive television ambitions, but with a new program guide it is trying to stay tuned to what viewers want to see on the small screen.

Rival Liberate Technologies, meanwhile, has scored a product placement for its software from a TV programming leader.

With more and more cable channels popping up every day, the listings guide could easily be the most popular channel in some households. So at a cable industry show in New Orleans, companies are taking the wraps off new products designed to make it easier for viewers to find the shows they want.

Microsoft, for instance, announced a new interactive program guide that works with two types of Motorola digital set-top boxes, the DCT1000 and DCT2000. That announcement came Monday at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association's Cable 2002 show in New Orleans.

Motorola also announced at the show that it had shipped 20 million set-top boxes.

Cable companies would buy the new interactive program guide software and resell the service to their customers, either with new boxes or as a download onto set-tops that home users already have. The program guide's interface can be customized for the specific cable provider with branding, graphics and color schemes, and integrated with other TV listings programs.

Microsoft will be releasing its program guide to set-top box manufacturers by the end of the month, but the company is not ready to announce customers yet, according to Ed Graczyk, a director in Microsoft's TV division.

Microsoft recently announced plans to scale back its television division and UltimateTV service group.

The program guide "is our initial effort in what will be a line of low-end broadcast experiences," Graczyk said.

Microsoft also announced an upgrade to its own Microsoft TV product, an interactive television service sold to cable companies. The new version offers integrated support for video-on-demand services and enhanced digital video recording services.

"Microsoft had to backpedal after hoping the market would catch up with their TV efforts," said Sean Badding, an analyst with market research firm The Carmel Group. "The reality is that the iTV market grew at a much slower rate, but what this gives them is a comprehensive suite of software, from advanced services to low-end offerings, that they can try to sell" to cable companies.

Microsoft has also been developing and demonstrating a program guide to be used in its Freestyle software targeted at PC makers for use in upscale Windows XP computers.

With the new program guide, Microsoft is going up against Gemstar-TV Guide International, which Monday announced the availability of a Java-based program guide that will run on Liberate Technologies' TV Platform Compact software on a Motorola DCT 2000 set-top box.

The new guide allows cable companies to deliver movies, short- and long-format video clips, and advertisements on demand. The companies said it also has new features that help TV viewers sort listings, find programming and set parental controls, among other features.

By supporting Java, the new products will allow third-party developers to migrate to the OpenCable Application Platform architecture on the Motorola DCT2500. The idea behind OCAP is to make set-top terminals and cable-ready digital televisions that work in multiple cable systems.

Microsoft has had a cross-licensing agreement for program guides with Gemstar since 1998. While Gemstar will take a cut of any revenue Microsoft generates from its program guide, Microsoft developed the software for its guide from the ground up, Graczyk said.

 

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