June 08, 2001, 10:02 AM — Microsoft Corp. has finally made it into television, and its software could be running on a cable network near you.
After six years of auditioning its Microsoft TV software platform to cable providers from the U.S. to China, the Redmond, Washington software maker has finally landed a few leading roles. Its software runs the servers that several cable TV networks are now deploying to enable interactive TV services and set-top boxes used in homes to access these services.
But it hasn't come without the typical entertainment -- and technology -- industry struggles.
Jon Devaan, senior vice president of Microsoft's TV division, admitted in a speech Thursday that the company has missed two opportunities to be first to test its interactive TV platform in some U.S. and European markets, and many of its current project have taken much longer than expected. Adding the latest blow, AT&T Corp. on Thursday reportedly scaled down its interactive television deal with Microsoft. Devaan spoke at Microsoft's Mountain View, California, campus as part of the company's Silicon Valley Speakers Series.
Devaan quickly moved to skirt the issue, however, by demonstrating new functions in its platform that will run on the cable networks in three new markets, two of which he announced at the event.
In Portugal Thursday, Microsoft went live with its high-speed interactive television service. Viewers there are the first in the world to be able to access services based on Microsoft's server and set-top box platform, the latter device manufactured by Portuguese hardware maker Octal Engenharia de Sistemas SA. It allows users to do everything from pausing live television to accessing their bank accounts using a smart card.
Also Thursday, Mexico's largest cable provider, Cablevision, said it would test Microsoft TV software on as many as 350,000 Motorola Inc. set-top boxes to offer similar services to as many as one-third of its cable TV subscribers. In addition, Israeli cable provider Matav Cable Systems Media Ltd. agreed to use the Microsoft platform to rev up its current set-top boxes with low-end software Microsoft acquired through its purchase of Peach Networks last year.
The news is good for consumers who have been waiting to order interactive television from their local cable providers. It is a bit more complicated for some of the people who are developing the programs to run on the software from Microsoft and competing vendors such as OpenTV Corp. and Liberate Technologies Inc.
"Everywhere you go, the cable operator has got a different application or a different operating software running," said Maurice Jacobsen, a senior producer with San Francisco-based Video Free America, who attended Thursday presentation and is developing interactive content for Discovery Communications Inc. "We spend a whole lot of time just sorting out, and understanding all the new developing platforms."