Far-Reaching ITV Collaboration Puts EBIF on Fast Track for 2011

Ellen Dudar, chief product officer & co-founder, FourthWall MediaSeveral pieces are falling into place around the cable industry’s launch of EBIF-based interactive services that should provide some early momentum to a national foundation for widely appealing apps, t-commerce and companion device capabilities.

Notwithstanding the long history of hype undermining credibility of claims that interactivity is at last about to take off, industry players say there’s no doubt 2011 will bring ITV into play on a mass market scale. “It’s frustrating when you try to make that case, because so much of the work is happening under the hood,” says Ellen Dudar, chief product officer and co-founder of FourthWall Media. “But we now have a ubiquitous platform that can support applications across the board. The industry really is at an inflection point.”

Collaboration is vital to ensuring a fast takeoff. For example, Canoe Ventures has taken a big step toward facilitating t-commerce in conjunction with launch of its Collaborative Innovation Program by expanding on the work done by FourthWall Media and PayPal to enable consumer payments on goods purchased through the TV set.

With PayPal supplying the payment platform, FourthWall has implemented a “TV Buy Button” application as part of its app portfolio for its own EBIF customers. Now the work undertaken by the two companies to integrate the PayPal and EBIF capabilities will be made available to Canoe as it builds interfaces everyone can use to streamline payments, Dudar says. “The spirit of CIP and the Innovation Lab [launched earlier this year and now a part of CIP] is one of inclusion and getting things done,” she explains.

“CIP lets Canoe embrace solutions that are out there and, in the Innovations Lab, look at interfaces and business practices to get that part done more easily, instead of re-inventing an end-to-end solution that has to be built from scratch,” she adds. “As long as we do the interfaces correctly, we’re not wed into one thing versus another. We’re not stuck with a roadmap that goes nowhere.”

As of the end of this year, industry players anticipate there will be 20 to 25 million set-tops equipped with EBIF software, marking a long-awaited turning point where a footprint large enough to make application development and distribution for advanced advertising, t-commerce and interactivity enhancements on national cable networks worth everyone’s effort. Service providers and suppliers like FourthWall have created vast portfolios of apps on proprietary platforms that are now being ported to EBIF. The question is when will programmers and advertisers engage on a national scale with their own initiatives?

“We support EBIF,” says Ruchir Rodrigues, vice president of product platforms at Verizon. “We are waiting for the networks to embrace that standard. We were the first to have the EBIF standard on set-top boxes. And as soon as we see EBIF come alive, we’re actually going to use it in a big way.”

It’s not a technology issue anymore, Rodrigues adds. “The standard is there. We’ve had trials. I think it’s just how many content providers and networks actually start putting interactivity into their streams. It does need equipment to be installed in those facilities. And there is some moving and heavy lifting to be done there to put video in the stream.”

One programmer that has been aggressive about getting interactivity off the ground on a national basis is HSN, the home shopping provider which has its “Shop by Remote” application running in 30 million households. In addition to EBIF-based deployments, these include iterations on OpenTV’s middleware with DISH Networks, Verizon’s Lua development platform and the in-the-cloud app platform supplied by ActiveVideo, notes Sean Bunner, senior vice president of HSN.

“EBIF will be much more broadly deployed [in the year ahead],” Brunner says. “I think you’ll see several forms of interactivity. We’ll be able to talk about the news application and the sports and the weather and several networks.”

The development of generic apps that can be readily fed into the EBIF domain is essential to the ubiquitous presence of interactivity that will help prepare consumers for the more advanced advertising and t-commerce components to come. “With general cornerstone applications, once you have this kind of normal engagement, consumers become aware of interactivity,” Dudar says. This lays the groundwork for “applications that drive revenue and then a national platform for advertisers.”

One locus of collaboration that should move things forward fairly rapidly is the EBIF solution development effort undertaken by Rovi Corp. and FourthWall, which allows Rovi to launch interactive applications on its Passport and i-Guide EPGs. Service providers like Blue Ridge Communications, the first cable company to license the guide enhancement, will be able to immediately bring FourthWall applications such as Yellow Pages on TV, eBay on TV (with PayPal payment support), news, weather, sports and finance into the guide experience and add others as they go along.

“By combining this interactive capability with the Rovi guide, we’re offering service providers a way to complement the entertainment experience for their customers and extend their platform to include features such as advanced advertising, news information and programming-based applications,” says Corey Ferengul, executive vice president of product management and marketing at Rovi. The platform has already launched on Passport and soon will be available on i-Guide, officials say.

The availability of a fast track into interactivity on the Rovi guides, now deployed with close to 500 service providers in North and South America, will likely contribute to seeding the consumer base with the interactive experience. But it’s the multitude of activities taken together that will make the big difference, Dudar notes.

“We have the platform rollout working with Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications and many smaller operators – in all, ten different distribution agreements at the platform level,” Dudar says. “That’s the linchpin for us.”

She stresses the importance of localized applications to the growth of interactivity on EBIF as operators await broader participation by programmers and advertisers. A case in point, she notes, is the success at drawing local advertisers OneLink Communications, Puerto Rico’s largest cable operator, has had with deployment of FourthWall’s Yellow Pages on TV. The app only launched in July but already has 200 participating advertisers, she says.

“Yellow Pages is a good example of a local product that can drive advertisers to the platform without waiting for other markets to launch,” she notes. “Local applications can help build more and more critical mass on the advertising side.”

Adding to the momentum is the growing interest in use of smartphones and tablets as “companion devices” for TV. “We’re hooking up our backend structure to support innovations on external devices, such as iPad applications,” Dudar says. “Personal content discovery can be a richer, more user-friendly experience when you bring in such devices with hooks into TV.”

For example, she adds, “Here I am surfing the guide and I see something I like on the TV set, which I can drill down on with my iPad. I can see more about a movie and, if it’s a VOD asset, purchase it. And there will be many brand new application ideas that emerge around these capabilities. Playing to the strengths of both types of devices – the TV and the handheld – opens up new ways of doing things.”