Microsoft sets battle lines for set-top war

An international agency has approved the Gates agenda for interactive TV software. That spells defeat for arch rival Sun Microsystems
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The Independent Online

Microsoft has won an important battle with its arch rival, Sun Microsystems, in the war to control the set-top box software for interactive TV. The fight turned in Microsoft's favour last month in Geneva, when a global consortium of 300 technology and consumer electronics companies adopted interactive TV specifications set by Bill Gates's software giant.

The specifications by the Digital Video Broadcasting consortium capped months of tense debate in which the two companies competed to influence what some industry observers believe is the next great frontier of home computing – interactive TV. DVB wants a standard that assures content written for one broadcaster's set-top box will run on other ones. "There were a lot of fights between Microsoft and Sun,'' said Vincent Dureau, chief technology officer for OpenTV, a leading provider of set-top box "middleware''. Mr Dureau, who sits on the DVB board that approved the specifications added: "It's about controlling the technology. Sun is keen on promoting their technology, and Microsoft is keen on limiting Sun.''

The DVB's new interactive TV specification, called Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) 1.1, is not a total rebuff for Sun. Like the original MHP 1.0 approved more than a year ago, it includes Java, the Sun programming language. But the new MHP also includes HTML, the general language used to design websites, and Javascript, which is not a Sun technology. The new version "was promoted primarily by Microsoft and Intel'', said Mr Dureau.

Microsoft and Intel have fallen foul of the competition authorities, who say they have used their market power to force customers to use their products and standard. Although the DVB issued MHP 1.0 in February 2000, no manufacturers are selling set-top boxes that use it. Developers complain about the difficulties of working with it, and say Java can be too much technology for many of the more rudimentary aspects of interactive TV. The new 1.1 version could change that because it gives developers the option of working with the lighter Javascript and HTML.

Success in defining the specification does not guarantee success in the marketplace, where OpenTV leads the pack with about 10 million installations worldwide, including five million with BSkyB in the UK.

Microsoft has struggled. It has had limited success in the US. And despite buying into European cable companies for several years, it only last month convinced Portugal's TV Cabo to use its software. Sun, headed by the outspoken Scott McNealy, does not sell its own set-top box software, but promotes Java technology as the core for other manufacturers' products.

Dan Stevens, a Sun product manager for JavaTV, claimed that Microsoft's victory with TV Cabo, rather than being the first of many such wins, "will be the last of a few''. And he questioned Microsoft's commitment to open standards.

But Microsoft's victory caps a good month for the software giant. The company recently scored a major victory in its long-running battle with the US Justice Department, when the US Court of Appeals overturned an earlier ruling demanding the break-up of the company for antitrust violations.

The American President George Bush has previously expressed a desire to see the case resolved amicably, and pressure is now mounting for an out-of-court settlement.