Microsoft targets Europe with TV-enabled set-top boxes

Microsoft announced set-top box availability for its IPTV technology and a new system-on-chip targeting consumer electronic manufacturers.

After lining up several big-name telecommunication service providers to offer its new IPTV (Internet Protocol television) technology, Microsoft is now following up with a list of companies to provide optimized set-top boxes, and with a new system-on-chip component targeted at consumer electronics manufacturers.

At the International Broadcasters Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam last week, the US software company announced the availability of the first set-top systems supporting Microsoft TV IPTV Edition. The IPM11xx products, jointly developed by Thomson and Intel, are now shipping to customers, Microsoft said. The products support a range of video codecs, including MPEG-2, Windows Media Video 9 and MPEG-4 AVC, and are equipped with a 1.4GHz Intel 854 processor.

Also announced at IBC were two new set-top box suppliers: Linksys-KiSS (a division of Cisco Systems), which plans to have a product on the market in December; and Tatung, which provided no details on product availability.

Motorola, which announced its support for Microsoft IPTV technology in a range of IP-based video products earlier this year, said it plans to offer a hybrid IPTV-DTT (digital terrestrial television) product as well.

"This hybrid product is aimed mostly at the European market, where this is a substantial amount of free over-the-air digital service," director of marketing for the Microsoft TV division, Ed Gracyzk, said.

Scientific-Atlanta, another supplier that previously announced its support for Microsoft TV IPTV Edition, said it is working on a range of products targeting both the North American and European markets.

Pricing will be down to service providers. "The manufacturers of the set-top boxes will sell their products to the telecommunication service providers, which, in turn, will most likely lease this equipment to customers as part of a service package," Gracyzk said. "So it is very difficult to say what the set-top boxes will cost."

Another key announcement made by Microsoft at IBC is the availability of a new system-on-chip component, which enables the production of low-cost devices optimised for Microsoft TV IPTV Edition. The SMP8634 media processor, supplied by Sigma Designs, can be embedded in a range of consumer electronic devices such as TV sets, PCs and game consoles, according to Microsoft.

"This is an important product development for a couple of reasons," Gracyzk said. "First of all, the chip will help manufacturers reduce costs by integrating various functions into one chip and eliminating the need for various components. And second, the chips can be embedded into many different kinds of consumer electronic products, such as DVD players, thus eliminating the need for a separate IPTV receiver."

With IPTV set-top box products now trickling in, the next question is: When will service be available? "Our software platform is in the final stage and will be available before the end of the year," Gracyzk said.

Most of the operators that have agreed to use Microsoft's IPTV technology plan to roll out service in the course of next year. A few, such as Swisscom, which had planned service earlier, were forced to delay their commercial launches largely because of technical difficulties with the Microsoft software.

The list of operators signed up by Microsoft includes BT Group, Telecom Italia and Deutsche Telekom in Europe, as well as BellSouth, SBC Communications and Verizon Communications in North America.

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