If you ask people to provide 10 words they associate with "software" or "computer", the answers would likely include "crash," "bugs," "update" and "new version". Users have come to accept that PC programs need to be upgraded from time to time to fix bugs and support new features. PCs are equipped with CD-ROM drives and high-speed Internet connections so consumers can install the latest software upgrades and firmware drivers.
Until now, consumers wouldn't associate words like "crash" and "update" with "television". But as television sets transition from analog to digital, and start hosting complex menus and web browsers, their firmware grows from less than 100 Kilobytes to tens of megabytes. Code this big is likely to have bugs that don't surface until sets are in many homes. Digital TV standards are changing, and screens are increasingly used for much more than watching broadcast TV.
A young company named UpdateLogic believes TV manufacturers need a way to upgrade the complex firmware in digital TVs in order to "fix bugs, support the latest changes in the broadcast stream, and comply with updated specifications from still-evolving DTV standards." We recently talked on the telephone with Tripp Blair, UpdateLogic's CEO.
Tripp said this is not a theoretical problem. He noted that the digital transition is happening all around the world, and the average frequency of firmware updates for digital TVs in Japan is 2.5 per year, done by exchanging flash memory cards. Updates requiring customer intervention or live vendor support are clearly untenable in the long term.
UpdateLogic's answer is a network technology which allows digital TV manufacturers to automatically distribute patches and upgrades directly to consumer devices. The product, called UpdateTV, is targeted at answering TV manufacturer's questions about "how can I fix it if something (in the firmware or software) is broken?" and "how can I add new features and conform to changing technical requirements?"
UpdateLogic's technical solution is a digital datacast of the updates using National Datacast's nationwide network of PBS stations. UpdateLogic servers format this data and insert it into the terrestrial and cable broadcast streams. The updates are then transmitted along with the video and audio signals to the DTV set.
To receive the updates from the the UpdateTV datacast, TV manufacturers include the UpdateTV Agent in their digital sets (and other devices such as digital converter boxes and DVRs). The devices must have digital tuners and be able to receive digital TV signals over the air or over cable. UpdateLogic wants to enable all digital TVs, whether they get their signals from satellite, cable or digital terrestrial. In the US, the FCC requires all TVs to include digital tuners by 2007.
Tripp said technical trials of UpdateTV with digital TV manufacturers are underway: Hitachi, Samsung, Sharp and Sony are participating in field trials and Mitsubishi and Panasonic are evaluating the SDK. UpdateLogic says the field trial "is occurring at stations within PBS and at locations within the areas of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Insight Communications." There are, to date, no agreements with satellite companies.
We're convinced that UpdateLogic is addressing a real problem. We're about to attend the annual National Cable TV Association meeting in Atlanta, so we will be interested in learning cable operators' views on the problem and on UpdateLogic's solution.