While vendors develop apps, Comcast, Time Warner Cable form RDK Management  

One year after the Comcast Reference Design Kit (RDK) made its public debut at The Cable Show, the platform has more than lived up to its “service velocity” goal. In short, the RDK went from being a PowerPoint presentation at last year’s Cable Show, to a viable platform that is cutting down on development cycle for not only set-top boxes and gateways, but also applications.

“The most impressive progress has been made in the number of participants in the program,” said Steve Reynolds, Comcast’s senior vice president of CPE and home networking. “We now have more than 100 companies involved, distributed across the entire ecosystem (silicon vendors, hardware OEMs, integrators, application developers, and service providers).

“This broad adoption has moved us significantly towards a goal of cutting set-top box development and integration cycles. We’re already closing in on our goal of being able to go from concept to launch of a new set-top box in under 12 months.”

The Comcast RDK was developed internally using open-source components and by working with various vendors. The RDK is a community-based ecosystem that allows developers, vendors and cable operators to use a defined stack of software on one layer in order to provision set-top boxes and gateways.

The RDK allows all of the interested parties to develop once and then scale across multiple environments – in the CableCard/ QAM/MPEG-2 environment of today, as well as in the IP environment of tomorrow.

The RDK includes CableLabs’ “Reference Implementation” for AP and tru2way, as well as the Java Virtual Machine (JVM.) Opensource components of the RDK include GStreamer, QT and WebKit, which are execution environments that can be tailored to each MSO. There are also optional plug-ins, such as Adobe Flash and Smooth HD.

The RDK is all about service velocity, which was demonstrated during demos at Imagine Park on the last day of The Cable Show in June. Demonstrations by vendors at Imagine Park showed that the RDK enabled them to develop products and applications in a matter of weeks instead of months.

Formation of RDK Management

Just last month, Comcast and Time Warner Cable announced the creation of RDK Management, which is a joint venture between the two cable operators that handles licensing, training, community support and code management for the RDK.

Comcast will chip in its RDK components into the new entity, including the RDK code and specifications, related intellectual property rights and associated contracts, including all of the current RDK licenses, which will be transitioned to RDK Management.

Time Warner Cable said that it would provide technical guidance, contribute code and financial support to the new entity.

By turning over the all of the RDK assets, Time Warner Cable and, particularly, Comcast, have signaled that the RDK now belongs to its membership community.

“Anyone can license the RDK for free and we expect more MSOs to do that particularly now that it’s an independent entity,”

said Time Warner Cable’s Matt Zelesko, senior vice president, converged technology group. “I think many of the MSOs will be more comfortable with that sort of structure.

We’re still in the early stages of the entity, but I will say that both companies are extremely excited about it.

“The question I would get from other MSOs not just about TWC’s commitment to the RDK prior to this, but also what was our comfort level in taking effectively a big part of our strategic platform moving forward and having it in a Comcast run entity? I think in this case we’ve both demonstrated TWC’s commitment to the RDK as our strategic platform for the future, and we’ve also addressed some industry concerns about the future of the RDK and its direction. I think this entity is going to be a great shepherd for this moving forward.”

Other cable operators that have expressed an interest in the RDK include Charter Communications, Rogers Communications, J:Com and Liberty Global.

Zelesko said the new entity would have its own dedicated office space and staff, which would most likely be located in one of Comcast’s Philadelphia offices.

“There will be a small full time staff for the RDK entity,” Zelesko said. “For some of it we will hire on new people and in certain cases, and for certain functions, we may leverage staff from Comcast and may even leverage some staff from TWC. A lot of this hasn’t been hammered out completely, but the notion is that certainly there will be some amount of dedicated staff.

“We’re going to leverage partners to do a lot of the work. Certainly from a code management perspective, the support of the licenses, et cetera, will be through partners, but of course someone has to manage those partners.”

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have been at the forefront of the RDK to date, but Zelesko said the new joint venture would hopefully lead to other cable operators licensing it.

“At this stage we wanted to start with the two founding members,” Zelesko said when asked why other MSOs weren’t included in the joint venture. “I would say directionally we’re not opposed to having more people join, but we also understand that as more people join the ability to get things done goes down. I think Comcast has done a great job of stewarding and shepherding the RDK to this point. Stepping outside of that and creating a separate entity I think is a great message to the industry that this is really a community project and not just a Comcast project. I think that will be positively received.”

The RDK Central web site, which was launched in February of this year, will be the hub of the new joint venture. Comcast’s Reynolds said that general information about the RDK is shared through the web site and via the RDK Report, which is an online magazine. More detailed information is available to community members through an RDK Wiki Web directory and community meetings.

Near the end of last year Time Warner Cable and Comcast hosted a closed RDK conference for licensees, and Zelesko said he expected a similar event to take place this year, but this time it would under the auspices of the RDK Management staff and its resources.

RDK in action

Comcast has deployed RDK-based software in its X1 platform, which is the only deployment of RDK-based devices to date. At The Cable Show, Comcast announced its X2 software update, which will include the new RDK-based Xi3 box that is made by Pace and Humax.

Time Warner Cable is trialing IP hybrid boxes and a cloud-based guide in Syracuse, New York, with the goal of expanding the trials to Los Angeles and New York City this fall, but the RDK won’t come into play until the first half of 2014, according to Zelesko.

“For a time to market reason we’re going out with proprietary stacks, which is the model we operate in today across the board,” he said. “We have proprietary stacks and the challenge is when we have several different vendors of a box today they each bring in their own version of that platform stack. One of the big promises of the RDK is to run a consistent, uniform, software stack and one that we have full visibility into across those different devices.

“For time to market reasons we’re going with a single vendor and we’re going out with their proprietary stack on Day One, but as we scale both the number of boxes and the number of vendors that we’re using for this cloud-based platform, then we are going to shift to the RDK.”

The RDK allows Time Warner Cable to streamline the three different OCAP stacks it had previously deployed in the past, while also improving the pace of innovation and the quality of the products.

“OCAP was really a set of APIs and every vendor came with their software that implemented those APIs,” Zelesko said.

“With the RDK it’s not just APIs, it’s really all of the code and platform support. On the video platform alone we take over 300 software drops across all of our vendors per year so you can imagine there’s a tremendous amount of change and in many cases we suffer by both the pace at which those come out and with our need to validate those.

Even though it’s all OCAP it’s all different software under the hood. That diversity is a challenge in terms of how quickly we can roll things out and it’s a challenge to make sure we’re delivering a high quality product.

“So with the RDK we have one piece of software that we run across all of those devices regardless of which OEM we get those devices from and we have full visibility into that software stack. We know what is changing. We know if there’s an issue where we can find it.”

The end game for Time Warner Cable will be converged gateways that manage all of the triple play services. Time Warner Cable currently has RDK-based products in its labs.

“We’re actively developing for the RDK,” Zelesko said. “Right now its focused primarily on our IP-based products. So we’re looking at it for our IP set-top box product and the next generation of our gateways where we’re looking to converge voice functionality, high-speed data functionality and video functionality into one device.

“For the IP set-top box we didn’t have an existing solution so we’re driving towards the RDK on that. In the case of some of these converged gateways, we have a platform stack for our high-speed data devices and we have a platform stack for our video devices and neither of those was necessarily the perfect one to go forward with. We’re looking at the RDK as a great way to drive the convergence of that gateway device.”

While the RDK provides a platform to enable cable operators to develop products quickly across a defined set of parameters, it also gives them flexibility. Comcast is using an XRE (cross-platform runtime environment) receiver built in QT, which is a Nokiadeveloped platform that lets it do portable apps in essentially a native layer.

By contrast, Time Warner Cable is employing a WebKit implementation of HTML5 to build its user interface on top of.

“Whether it’s in XRE infrastructure or whether it’s a navigation paradigm that is based on HTML5, those all sit on top of the RDK,” Zelesko said. “Comcast and TWC could use the same version of the RDK running on each of our devices and then run either an XRE based-interface or run an HTML5-based interface on those devices.

“We think more and more consumer devices are going toward HTML5 and it will be sort of a common infrastructure that we can write applications once, in HTML5, and run them on many devices. We see value in the RDK purely from our own device perspective, but certainly there’s a much bigger opportunity if we can drive it to not just the devices we lease but also to consumer-owned devices as well.”

The RDK could, in theory, lead to some sort of app store environment for cable operators, but don’t hold your breath.

“It’s a big step towards the technical feasibility of that approach,” Reynolds said. “One of the key components in RDK is the HTML5 browser. We made the decision when the project started that we wanted to move towards HTML5 as the model for application development.

By standardizing around a single source code implementation of HTML5, for example Webkit on QT, we’ve been able to focus on building apps and services that work well in this environment.”

Both Reynolds and Zelesko also said the RDK ecosystem would benefit Tier 2 and Tier 3 cable operators.

“Smaller operators can get exactly the same benefits as large operators,” Reynolds said. “Faster time to market, shorter integration and test cycles, broad availability of hardware and applications, and a dramatically increased pace of innovation are all made possible by RDK.

“It’s also important to note that these benefits are available without directly joining the community. While we certainly encourage everyone to join, we do understand that some operators may simply want to buy solutions based on RDK. That is possible through the terms of the license arrangement where an RDK community member has the ability to sell products based on the RDK.”

What’s next for the RDK

Reynolds said Comcast would focus its efforts on scaling RDK-based products over the next year, and that he expected other cable operators to join the fray over that same time period.

“We continue to add new features to the RDK and work on new profiles,” he said. “RDK 1.3 added support for IP-only clients. RDK 2.0 will introduce a new media framework that is more flexible and more efficient. A new profile for headless gateways is also in development.

“We certainly expect to see more devices being introduced that support RDK. All of Comcast’s new video devices use RDK as their software platform and all of our hardware OEMs are working on supporting the RDK. We also expect to increase the number of applications that run on top of RDK, including the personalization, social media, and lifestyle applications that were announced at NCTA.”

At The Cable Show, Humax’s Robert McNabb said that the RDK allowed it to cut the development cycle for a new user interface from “months to days.” After signing the RDK license in February, Humax had a demonstration of its IP client device ready three weeks later at the CableLabs Winter Conference.

In a similar vein, Scott Yoneyma, director of business development at Symphony Telica, said it took his company two weeks to develop its “TweeTV” app that puts a Twitter stream on a TV screen. The Twitter hashtag-based guide to social TV watching and interactive Twitter and TV mashup uses HTML5. Tweets containing an event’s hashtag are displayed as an overlay or crawl, accessed by browsing an alternative user interface that tag-clouds TV content based on trending hashtags.

The hashtags can grow or shrink based on how a topic is trending.

Hillcrest Labs' Bill Rouady, director of planning for TV software and services, showed how the company’s “Scoop” motion- controlled remote worked in tandem with an RDK-based browser from Espial.

The Scoop control incorporated the RDK in two weeks in order to enable Internet browsing and navigation on a TV screen.

“I think what we’ll see over the course of the next 12 months is more and more boxes that are supporting this and more of the operator apps that are supporting this,” Reynolds said during The Cable Show RDK session. “You can see that a lot of the developers that worked on this panel are using the reference platform boxes.

Obviously, what we would love to see is real set-top boxes that operators are actually deploying running RDK, and certainly to add some of these great applications into these operator environments.

“I think that’s what we’ll see over the next 12 months, that scaling of the RDK platform.” ■