March 16, 2011 – The prospects for EBIF as a driver behind advanced applications and services that are top priority for MSOs have greatly improved with initiatives aimed at creating companion-device connections between set-tops and portable gadgets of every description.
FourthWall Media is leading the way with introduction of a set of cloud-based services, dubbed “AirCommand,” that will allow developers to create apps that connect smartphones, tablets and other devices to EBIF–enabled set-tops. With a footprint exceeding 20 million set-tops, EBIF (Enhanced Binary Interchange Format) has reached what cable operators anticipate will be the tipping point toward mass rollout of iTV apps, including interactive advertising capabilities.
But, until now, the range of EBIF apps was limited to the TV, leaving it up to each MSO or its suppliers to develop apps specific to certain brands of devices such as the iPad and iPhone, often using proprietary software solutions with no tie-in to EBIF. “The significance of AirCommand is that it delivers common services, eliminating the need for custom development and integration for every mobile application, and allowing operators to better scale the business,” says FourthWall CEO Tim Peters. “And because it’s an EBIF solution, it’s deployable today.”
By extending the Web service capabilities it originally developed to bring eBay apps to the TV, FourthWall has created an environment where developers can build apps linking devices to the TV set without any understanding of how EBIF works, notes Ellen Dudar, chief product officer and co-founder of FourthWall. “We believe AirCommand is a game changer in this era of iTV and device proliferation,” Dudar says. “Now MSOs can tap into these innovations without all these people understanding the cable development environment.”
MSOs are racing ahead of EBIF to bring new apps to market for portable devices, especially the iPad. These include enabling remote-control functionalities, enhanced navigation, extended content segments complementing a viewed TV show or advertisement and, in the case of Time Warner Cable, streaming of live linear cable TV programming to the device.
Like FourthWall other EBIF technology suppliers are responding to this surge in companion device innovation, which could lead to a much vaster realm of useful apps in the cable space than was originally foreseen for EBIF. “We’re not ready to announce anything, but this is an obvious next step for making EBIF useful for meeting MSOs’ top-priority objectives in advanced services,” says an executive at another supplier, asking not to be named. “I expect you’ll see several announcements along these lines by the time of the Cable Show.”
For now, though, FourthWall has the lead in bringing such capabilities to the EBIF market. It helped that the company already has a Web service infrastructure in place to support connection of Internet-based applications to the TV. “We’ve long had the plumbing that allows us to use EBIF to bring eBay alerts to the TV,” Dudar says. “The app on the set-top knows it’s handling the message coming into the user on an eBay bid – ‘Hey, you just got outbid.’
“With AirCommand we’re packaging up that plumbing and exposing those services to everyone. Instead of doing this for specific apps like eBay, we’re handling it in an abstracted way. We’re saying to third-party developers, you hand off your app to us and we’ll draw it on the TV screen.”
AirCommand consists of the EBIF client running on the set-top – FourthWall’s EBIF user agent – and the backend server infrastructure, which supports an easy-to-use interface that conceals all the EBIF intricacies from developers. “Developers simply register to the Web service, and we take care of things like authenticating and paring the devices with EBIF set-tops, handling secure bandwidth management and all the message routing and reporting,” Dudar says.
The app possibilities in this domain are virtually limitless. “The real point is this is an infrastructure for a new world of apps that’s unending,” Dudar says. “There are the things people have been doing in the proprietary vein like remote control-type apps, programming your DVR, looking up on-demand titles. But then there’s this whole new set of apps, which could be anything.
“From my perspective, the opportunities for social media apps and delivering programming-related content over and above what’s available when you’re watching a show are really cool,” she says. So, too, are the navigational possibilities. “I can have original programming from my guide combined with references from people I know and noted authorities,” she says.