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Panasonic Takes Java To Cable TV Set-Top Box

Delivering on a promise made at the Consumer Electronics Show a year ago, Panasonic said Sunday that it will start offering this spring a Java-enabled digital cable set-top box to U.S. cable operators.

LAS VEGAS — Delivering on a promise made at the Consumer Electronics Show a year ago, Panasonic said Sunday (Jan. 7) that it will start offering a Java-enabled digital cable set-top box to U.S. cable operators this spring. The set-top will be compliant to the software specification called OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP).

Panasonic will also launch in early 2008 digital cable-ready plasma TVs, also OCAP compliant, according to Richard Strabel, vice president of Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Co.

Such a digital TV requires no external digital cable set-top. While cable-ready TVs are prevalent among analog TV sets, the consumer electronics industry has lagged in developing digital cable-ready TVs.

Panasonic's moves (see video interview) represent the first time for a major consumer electronics manufacturer to break through the U.S. cable TV market, which has been tightly controlled by close relationships between leading cable operators and two set-tops suppliers—Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta, now a Cisco company.

Panasonic has been working with Comcast Corp. on OCAP set-top development for several years. Ensuring the interoperability of OCAP set-tops across head-ends and interactive applications has taken much longer than either cable operators or set-top vendors had expected. "We have to look at a set of large amounts of software," said Mark Coblitz, senior vice president, strategic planning at Comcast. While acknowledging that the companies are still "getting the kinks out," Coblitz said the collaborative work is well on "its path to deployment."

Panasonic is bullish on its plan to integrate a board—essentially an OCAP-compliant interactive digital cable set-top box—into the company's plasma TVs. The company is willing to put an OCAP-compliant digital cable-ready feature onto as many high-end plasma TVs as possible next year. Asked if that ratio will be about 20 percent, Strabel said, "It will be a much bigger ratio." But he declined to put a number to his commitment. He also added, "Fitting all the OCAP-compliant electronics inside a slim flat panel TV is not easy." Asked whether cable operators may subsidize the cost of adding such a digital cable-ready feature to a TV, both Strabel and Comcast's Coblitz said, "What subsidies?"

Strabel acknowledged that Panasonic will shoulder the cost of integrating digital cable-readiness. In light of the growing number of high-end large-screen plasma TVs, the inclusion of a digital cable board is not likely to add a significant cost burden.

Panasonic will supply the chip set that goes inside its own new interactive digital cable set-top box, according to Strabel. The new set-top, scheduled for launch this spring, will come ready to decode H.264, in addition to MPEG-2. Asked when Comcast will start to encode its digital TV content in H.264, Coblitz, while declining to disclose the exact timing, said that the company will start offering some of its HD on demand content in H.264.

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