More Concrete Details on Vista MCE and "Digital Cable Ready" PCs from a Microsoft VP

microsoft joe belfioreEngadget has just posted their interview with Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore, VP in charge of the company’s eHome division, and asked him questions most of us have been itching to get answered. Belfiore expands on what we can expect in the next iteration of MCE, CableCARD certification for “Digital Cable Ready PCs,” and a little background on why Microsoft chose to back HD-DVD over Blu-ray. Honestly, it’s a must-read for any DIY PC builder or MCE enthusiast.

Below is an extend excerpt about CableCARD certification, integration, and challenges for small OEMs and DIY builders:

[ON OpenCable and the DirecTV deal]

Stephen Speicher: OpenCable… Congratulations… About time…. When? How? How will it work?

Joe Belfiore: We’re super excited that when Vista launches this fall, we’ll be able to respond to the requests of many of our current enthusiasts to be able to support native, premium, digital content by supporting digital cable.

So the way this will work – we spent an awful lot of time and energy working closely with the cable industry to come to an agreement for a way that cable services could be delivered natively to the PC taking advantage of CableCARD. When you are shopping for a new PC after Vista launches, you’ll have the choice to buy one that is “Digital Cable Ready” and includes the right hardware for you to attach your coax cable from the wall right into your PC. Slap a cable card in and then get all of the great premium High-Definition content like HBO or Showtime or ESPN — all those things that cable makes available today, but requires a set-top box.

SS: I’m going to focus right back on the words “New PCs”… Only new PCs?

JB: Yes, it will be only new PCs. Part of the way this all worked out was trying to balance the cable industry’s concerns about guaranteeing a predictable level of service. It’s a lot wider-ranging than most average consumers would think. Of course they’re worried about things like a great picture quality, but they also have concerns about things that are mandated by law and are parts of their service that you don’t see and experience everyday: for instance, a guaranteed level of support for emergency broadcasts. So, in trying to help make the situation a win-win for the PC industry and for the cable industry, we arrived at a point where the cable industry could feel great about the PC as a device on their network by getting a guarantee from the maker of the PC that it would work well for all of these things. So, as we roll out CableCARD, the cable industry wanted a way to know that any particular PC that was sold as “Digital Cable Ready” would absolutely be able to deliver on the wide range of things that you couldn’t predict with certainty would happen on a home-built PC.

SS: You talk about a guarantee – I assume that means there will be an OEM certification process.

JB: There are a couple of parts to this actually, and I’ve heard on various Podcasts some confusion about what’s required. There are actually two things that are required. One is that CableLabs has a well-defined process for certifying devices as “Digital Cable Ready” devices. So, there is a component of the future “Digital Cable Ready” PC which we call OCUR (Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver). One vendor that is building these today is ATI. So, any vendor that wants to build an OCUR device has to take it through a certification process at CableLabs which is well-defined. They have a number of certification waves that happen at scheduled times every year. It’s a published test suite that it has to pass. So, that has to happen for the device that receives cable and translates cable conditional access from the CableCARD to Windows Media DRM. So, that’s one part. The other part is that the entire system as shipped by the OEM has to be, for the purposes of this discussion, “certified.” The PC vendor has to notify CableLabs of the model of the PC that will be “Digital Cable Ready” and indicate that its entire system from the graphics card to the OCUR will support what is needed for things like the Emergency Broadcast System.

SS: So what exactly does that mean? Is it a minimum specification level?

JB: The problem that we and cable faced was that this was the first device that cable had encountered that had a really wide range of capabilities and wide range of components in it. Up until the PC, cable’s test suite could certify an entire device solution as it would go to market, but that didn’t make sense for the PC because we didn’t want it to be the case that every single PC model that Dell or HP or Sony wanted to ship with CableCARD had to go through this certification. So the process here is that the OCUR component must be certified, and it has to be built into a system that the OEM can essentially self-certify. By self-certification what that means is that it must meet a set of requirements that includes the way that things get displayed like Emergency Broadcast System and closed captioning, that the minimum content protection requirements are met, and that the system functions together as advertised as you would expect from a “Digital Cable Ready” device. The OEM then basically sends a letter to CableLabs indicating that a particular system is one that they have self-certified and can be shipped as a “Digital Cable Ready” PC.

SS: I assume this will allow the smaller OEMs to produce theirs and it will be a fluid process?

JB: The smallest of OEMs that license Windows through the System Builder Kit (which you can essentially buy today as an enthusiast user) – those folks are not eligible to do self-certification with CableLabs. So the small PC vendors, as yet, can’t do this. We hope to get that process fixed in time, but as we’re at version one for the time-being it’ll be the OEMs which are a step up in size from that. That includes lots of small OEMs but generally not the mom and pop shops that do PC repair and occasionally build PCs.

SS: Will we see multi-stream support?

JB: I may be out of date on this — my understanding is that as yet there is not an approved spec by cable to actually deliver and ship multi-stream cards, but the minute there is we will support it.

SS: In the meantime, if an OEM wanted to produce a machine with multiple tuners, can they use multiple OCUR devices?

JB: Yes.

Filed in: Industry Buzz

  • brianworkman

    Very Nice article. Now only if Dell will actually build a living room factor MCE.

  • dbfresh23

    I still wonder what is in place to stop me from just buying an OCUR device (if they become available in the retail market as ATI plans) and just plugging it into my home built PC – Hardware, Software, or will the cable company just refuse to hook it up?

    It’s sad because OEMs like Dell intentionally build PCs to be more stable rather then higher performing. My home built AMD Athlon 2000+ outperforms my Dell 2.8ghz P4 in virtually everything I’ve done with them. If DirecTV doesn’t come out with a silly requirement like this I can see a whole lot of dedicated MCE / Cable TV customers canceling and converting to the dish.

    As for the HD-DVD / Blueray debacle, I’m with Apple – Boycott em both!

  • sdsdv10

    I call BS on this stuff. If Emergency Signal broadcast and closed captioning were so important, why wasn’t this type of standard required for OTA or non-digital cable tuners currently sold and used in PC’s. I have both digital and standard cable in my home (one set top box and two other TVs on non-digital service). The Emergency Broadcast Signal comes thru all three the same time in the same way. Again, I call BS on this entire thing. It is only about DRM and piracy.