Sun moves into set-top boxes in Europe
November 4, 1998
by Steven Brody
(IDG) -- Sun Microsystems announced recently a deal with BetaResearch, a European digital television technology provider, to implement Sun embedded operating system technology in its future products. The agreement is being touted by Sun as another milestone in its efforts to target the set-top embedded device market, since its high-profile deal in January with Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) to include Java in all deployed set-top boxes, and a subsequent deal with Hitachi's set-top program in June.
Under the terms of the deal, the next generation of BetaResearch's "d-box," a multimedia receiver of digital audio, video, and data services, will be based on Sun's ChorusOS realtime embedded operating system. The boxes, which receive services broadcast to homes via satellite and cable according to specified open standards, are scheduled to ship early next year.
"We chose Sun's ChorusOS over a range of other embedded operating systems because of its small, efficient memory footprint and its powerful realtime engine for handling multimedia digital broadcast," said David Gillies, head of Research and Development at BetaResearch.
"BetaResearch is committed to a strategic initiative around the Java platform in order to better differentiate our services from the competition. By selecting Sun's ChorusOS software, the realtime foundation for the Sun JavaOS product family, BetaResearch can easily extend the product to take advantage of the Java platform," he added.
Sun's Java virtual machine (JVM) runs on top of the ChorusOS to form the complete JavaOS. In the past, many set-top box makers designed their own "homegrown" embedded OSs, but as interest in the devices has picked up, manufacturers have moved towards commercial operating systems like Chorus and Windows CE.
"They have realized that their value-add is not in designing the OS," said J.P. Badouin, general manager with Sun's Consumer and Embedded Division. "A Java-based OS will allow us to update the software remotely...You can't exactly show up on every doorstep in Germany with a CD and ask them to rev their systems."
BetaResearch set-tops do not actually use Java yet, said Badouin. BetaResearch has a lot of legacy programs written in C, and will eventually transition to Java.
The German set-top maker said it expects to begin the initial rollout by 1999, and predicts that its user base will expand to 5 million over the next five years. BetaResearch was not immediately available to comment on its current user base.
At present, Zona Research estimates that the worldwide market for embedded Internet access devices -- PDAs, set-tops, Internet-enabled phones, etc. -- consists of roughly .5 million users. Greg Blatnick, vice president at Zona, said he expects the market to grow to roughly 7.5 million by the year 2000.
In January of this year, Sun beat out Microsoft for a coveted deal with TCI, which will use Sun's Java software on all of its set-top boxes to be deployed in 1999. Sun cited Java's as the reason for its eleventh-hour victory in its bid for the license, saying that the set-top market and associated software systems have been traditionally fragmented and that Java will allow cross-platform software development by third parties.
"It's a free-for-all right now," said Blatnick, referring to the set-top market and associated operating systems. "We don't know who's going to get the biggest piece of the pie, but it's going to be a very large pie."
Badouin described the European market for set-tops as slightly different than the American market, which focuses on downloading multimedia "channels" consisting of movies, games, etc. Europeans, he said, will initially have more interest in Web access, and later in using the device for a central control over home electronics, including security systems.
"PC penetration in the home is much smaller in Europe than in America," said Badouin. "I think that Germany has the highest with 32 percent compared to about half that in the rest of Europe. [Set-tops] are good alternatives for Europeans who want to have access to the Web."
The term set-top has actually become a misnomer in many cases, Badouin pointed out, since devices are becoming integrated into the television itself.
Sun penetrated Japan's budding market for set-tops earlier this year in a deal with Hitachi to use the JavaOS in 30,000 set-tops sold there. A far cry from managing home security systems, Hitachi pointed to agricultural information for farmers and "cram schools" for university hopefuls, as important real-world applications for the boxes.
While BetaResearch markets strictly to the German-speaking countries of Europe, Sun is working on collaborations with other EU members, including Britain and France. Sun declined to comment on any specific announcements regarding planned collaborations.
Closer to home: WebTV drops Java
While Sun likes to assure customers that the Internet without Java is like a car without wheels, some companies may be marketing to customers that prefer to walk.
WebTV recently told the press that it has decided to abandon the use of Java in its product, citing the heavy memory burden and associated added cost. WebTV appears to believe that Java-based Internet content is not in demand by its customers.
Zona Research's Greg Blatnick agreed that WebTV's customers might be largely unaffected by the absence of Java support.
"There are many organizations and entities that have a Web presence that have Web sites that they are trying to simplify and streamline. They want to make it easy for people to interact with the site and reduce...the java component of the Web site," said Platnick.
The other possibility, he added, is that the average WebTV user won't even know what he's missing.
"I don't think they know whether Java means coffee or a programming language. WebTV is advertised to unsophisticated new users and it has been positioned as something that enhances the TV viewing experience."
Blatnick emphasized that WebTV is not designed as device for high-level Internet access.
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