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News From the International Broadcasting Convention

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Media geeks head to Amsterdam for confab and hash bars:

    The annual International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) brought few breakthroughs or major partnerships, because this year key players are trying to do less rather than more. U.S.-based Microsoft, which last year boasted its first customer for its interactive TV middleware software in Portugal’s TVCabo, went on the record saying that it was no longer trying to sell products with all the bells and whistles, because clients could no longer afford expensive set top boxes.

    “We’re focusing on slimmed-down set top boxes which can earn money right away,” Moshe Lichtmann, the vice president of Microsoft’s TV division, told Reuters. He mentioned software that detects personal preferences to suggest paid-for programs like films. No announcements were imminent however, and it could take years before the company announced major wins, he said.

    Microsoft’s competitors in the television software industry were equally gloomy about their business, especially in Europe where cable operators were late to upgrade their networks, and didn’t finish the job before they collapsed under massive debts.

    Almost all cable operators are going through debt restructurings and if they come out they will be very cautious with future investments, said Mitchell Kertzman, chief executive of Liberate Technologies, the world’s leading supplier of middleware to cable TV companies.

    “In Europe it will be tough going for a number of quarters,” he told Reuters in an interview.

    TELECOMS CARRIERS SET TO OFFER TELEVISION

    In a further sign that the beacons are shifting, set top box maker Pace unveiled a series of new products designed for telecoms providers to broadcast television and films over broadband Web connections like DSL (digital subscriber line).

    DSL is a supercharged phone line.

    “Some 12 major telecoms providers throughout Europe are on the verge of doing something, and Europe is 12 months behind Asian countries like Taiwan, Korea and Japan. Some telcos in Europe are close to volume purchases,” Internet set top box manager Andrew Clifforth told Reuters.

    Since last year’s IBC many cable companies in Europe have cancelled plans to expand into telephony services because it is too expensive. Now their bread and butter of TV services is threatened by telephone incumbents. The Pace boxes will start at around 200 euros, up to 350 euros if they include a hard disk.

    Hard disks can store many hours of film and TV programs and can help broadcasters save fortunes on network upgrades. Canal Plus Technologies, a unit of Vivendi-owned satellite broadcaster Canal Plus, showed a set top box that automatically stores a rotating set of popular movies. It will be used by its parent company Canal Plus.

    Simply by calling or texting the satellite company, consumers pay to unlock one of these blockbuster titles. This way satellite TV providers offer real-time video-on-demand without the need to set up an expensive interactive connection — satellite TV networks are broadcast-systems only. Philips Electronics (Amsterdam:PHG.AS – News) showed another trick to create a cheap “return path” for interactive services. One of its set top boxes featured a short-distance Bluetooth radio chip that automatically connects to the satellite or cable TV company via a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone with a packet data connection. Instructions could be short like: “buy”, “forward” or “skip”.

    A Bluetooth chip costs just five euros, an investment quickly earned back if consumers start ordering extra TV services or films without a costly network upgrade. In the U.S. average consumers order to view anything between one and three films a month when offered video-on-demand services.

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