Following Sun and Microsoft, Sony joins the Set-Top Crowd

The set-top box could eventually become the center of your attention, which is why several turf wars have broken out to win control over this part of the home-theater market. With DTV on the horizon, cable and satellite companies will be upgrading the services that feed your TV with some mix of standard and high-definition digital audio and video. And as movie distribution moves toward a pay-per-view future, the gateway to these services---the set-top box---will have more prominence in most home-theater systems.

First, Sun Microsystems (with Java) and Microsoft (with Windows CE) threw their hats in the ring (see previous article) in an attempt to become the primary provider of the operating system used for consumer electronics. Last week, Sony and TCI's National Digital Television Center (NDTC), a subsidiary of Tele-Communications Inc., announced that the two companies have reached an agreement regarding the use of Sony's consumer-electronics platform software in TCI's digital set-top boxes.

According to TCI, Sony will license its Home Networking Module to TCI for use in all of Sony's digital set-top devices. Sony will provide TCI with a version of the Home Networking Module software for use with the Windows CE operating system. At the same time, TCI has also agreed to adopt Sony's Aperios real-time operating system as an alternative OS for use in its digital set-tops.

According to David Beddow, senior vice president of TCI, "When equipped with the Home Networking Module and Sony's i.LINK digital interface [which is the company's implementation of IEEE1394, a.k.a. FireWire], our set-top devices will be able to do more than just pass through HDTV signals. All digital signals, including HDTV and interactive services, can be connected to other appliances such as digital television sets and digital video recorders using the digital interface, which also supports a newly developed digital copy-protection solution. The set-top devices will also be able to control, and be controlled by, a variety of other i.LINK-equipped digital A/V electronics appliances. In this way, they can serve as a value-added gateway for a wide range of innovative digital-based interactive services for the home-network environment."

Sony's Home Networking Module is "middleware" (software that runs between an operating system and application software) that allows digital appliances equipped with i.LINK to be interconnected and interoperated. The i.LINK interface allows products to send and receive digital commands and digital A/V streams (i.e., video and audio) at up to 400 Mbps. (For more information on IEEE 1394, see the 1394 Trade Association's Web site, as well as previous articles 1 and 2.)

Aperios is a real-time operating system that Sony has developed to fulfill the OS requirements of digital A/V products such as digital set-top devices. According to Sony, "Because it can process continuous streams of audio and video content efficiently and without interruption, Aperios is especially well suited for real-time applications. By virtue of its modular, object-oriented structure, Aperios is a highly configurable and scalable real-time operating system that can be used in a broad range of digital A/V products."

"We are pleased that TCI has chosen Sony as a key supplier of technology for TCI's advanced digital set-top devices," says Yukio Kubota, deputy president of Sony Corporation's Digital Network Solutions Company. "Sony's Home Networking Module will play an important role in enabling cable TV set-top devices to provide next-generation interactive services through the home-network environment."