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March 18, 2010

Canoe Floats its EBIF Templates

Last summer Canoe Ventures backed off its ambitious goal to roll out community addressable advertising across national geographic regions. At that time Canoe predicted it would, at least, launch an interactive ad campaign via enhanced TV binary interchange format (EBIF) by the end of 2009.

That hasn't happened yet. But at an EBIF intensive at the TV of Tomorrow Show in San Francisco in early March, it was clear that Canoe, in conjunction with CableLabs, is trying to streamline and simplify processes. Canoe is focusing on EBIF templates to enable advertisers to deliver interactive ads nationally to major MSOs.

(For more on the Canoe/CableLabs joint efforts, click here and here).

"It turns out this is kind of complicated," said Steve Reynolds, SVP of premises technology with Comcast.

To help wrangle the complexity of it all, Canoe is starting with EBIF templates, already spawning the unfortunate new "word" - templatize.

Canoe has divided its template work into three categories.

  1. A lead generation template, for things like request for information (RFI), trivia and polling. These are the simplest EBIF apps that Canoe hopes to actually roll out this year.
  2. Later, Canoe will have customer templates, created in partnership with given programmers. The partners would work together to take the underlying EBIF functionality and customize for the programmer.
  3. Eventually, programmers will be able to create fully customized templates.
"In terms of getting the market going, templates help get us to scale," said Malia Flynn, VP of product management, Canoe Ventures. "I don't want to send the message that Canoe is just about templates. But in the next 12 months we're working to get to scale."

"At this point in time, we're working on templates because we need to get the basic functionality working," said Reynolds.

To clarify, Reynolds said Canoe's EBIF template work is only for bound applications, which are associated with the currently tuned channel. That's different than unbound applications, which are not associated with any particular broadcast or on-demand service.

Although EBIF is touted as the best way to do interactive advertising across legacy set-top boxes, those set-tops are still problematic.

Christy Martin, VP of solutions engineering with Canoe, said the company has divided existing set-tops into two categories: low-end boxes (the Motorola DCT 2000); and high-end boxes.

"For a lot of apps the DCT 2000 can do EBIF," said Mark Hess, SVP of video business and product development with Comcast. "There are certain things it will never be able to do. We've got about eight million of them out there, not necessarily on the first (TV) set."

Hess said the caller ID feature has not been put on Comcast's DCT 2000s, so that should accelerate their retirement.

Having the world of legacy set-tops divided into two still forces app developers to make choices. Frank Sandoval, principal architect with CableLabs, agreed that the low-end-devices cause creative limitations with color palettes, fonts, graphics and symbols.

"Game developers on PCs are faced with this same problem," Sandoval said. "Where's the tradeoff between scale and the smaller audience of screamingly fast machines? Ultimately it's the developer's choice."

More complications

Another problem with legacy set-tops is the buttons supported on the remotes. Moto has "OK" in the center of the remote, while Cisco has "Select."

And whether the user has a low-end or high-end set-top, the experience is still limited to the antiquated up-down and left-right buttons on the remote.

Another consideration with EBIF apps is user agents. This is the software that goes in the set-top box. CableLabs has certified several user agents for MSOs and EBIF players such as itaas. **

"When templates are done they're already pre-certified on all user agents," said Martin.

Name change?

Meanwhile, another indicator that this market is shifting from the world of software developers into prime time:

The "EBIF" tag will be getting replaced with something more consumer-friendly soon, according to a CTAM member in the audience at TV of Tomorrow, who said a new name would likely be announced at the Cable Show in May.

-Linda Hardesty

**Correction: CableLabs said it does not certify user agents.

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