September 09, 2013

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Better, Faster, Stronger: RDK Improves Cable Software

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Cable boxes are going to get a lot better over the next few years. You might not notice right away. But if you pay close attention, you’ll start noticing more and more next-gen boxes in the marketplace, rolling out faster than ever. Cable guide software will get better, faster, and iterate more rapidly.

What’s behind this quiet acceleration is a joint project between Time Warner Cable and Comcast called “RDK.”

RDK stands for reference design kit. And what this is, in short, is a series of software design standards for cable companies and cable box manufacturers to refer to when creating new software and new boxes.

This is part of a joint venture with Comcast to develop, implement, manage code and train users in this new standardized software kit.

This could get a little fuzzy fast. Let me explain:

Right now, your cable box has two sets of software on it – also called “software stacks,” or “stacks.” Each stack is divided into layers. One layer is the UI user interface experience, what we refer to as Navigator on our DVRs. This is what allows you to flip channels, browse listings, schedule recordings, pull movies by title, etc.

Another layer runs beneath that. It’s what allows recordings to actually happen, what executes the commands that you input through the Navigator, runs the fan to cool the box, connects to the main server for updates, etc.

Currently, set-top box manufacturers like Motorola, Samsung, Arris, etc., all have different stacks for their boxes, and each box is tailor-made to a particular cable or satellite provider.
So Samsung, for example, would make one box designed for Time Warner Cable, another box designed for Comcast, another for AT& T, and so forth.

Each company’s software is tailor-made to work with what they think our system will work with the best. However, that’s not always perfect – every software project has bugs, quirks, etc. This is a natural part of the technology development process.

When we get a shipment of boxes from Samsung – or any other box manufacturer, I am simply using them as an example here – we then have to QA their software against our system to make sure it works. And when we find a bug, we have to reply to Samsung, and request that it be addressed. The whole process can take months.

On top of that, Samsung also makes boxes for Comcast, Cablevision, etc., and each of THOSE boxes has a similar software issue – custom-made for each system, with its own imperfections that get smoothed out in the QA process.

All this QA, waiting for repairs, etc, takes alot of time and resources. We get 300 versions of code per year that we have to test, for example.

The RDK is designed to be one single set of standards for manufacturers and cable companies alike. This will greatly reduce the wait time in between box upgrades, and result in more, new boxes in the marketplace and a much faster software dev cycle.

Unlike previous standard attempts like OCAP, this is not just a set of specifications, but actual code that is modified and improved by a community of contributors. Comcast is already using this code in its devices.

Every developer from every company involved with RDK can contribute code, changes, and more. This is a community effort, giving every member a chance to improve the RDK.

Like I said before, the customer experience will be a subtle, but drastic improvement in the quantity and quality of next-gen cable boxes flowing out into the marketplace. We’ll be able to design better guide software faster, and we’ve got a lot more power to fix code when something goes wrong. Because this software is open-source, we don’t have to wait for it to be fixed. We can just fix it ourselves.

Matt Zelesko, the Senior Vice President of our Converged Technology Group, is leading this project from our side. It makes perfect sense for us, particularly as he also used to be the head of engineering at Comcast Interactive Media.

“We need this to be a joint venture between at least two different companies,” Zelesko says, “so that the project could have some balance. If it were up to only one company, it would begin to fall victim to the priorities and prejudices of one organization. What we’re trying to do here is create a community of developers across the industry, all working toward the same goals.”

In an article in Multichannel News, Zelesko expands, saying:

The RDK is “going to span a number of different platforms,” he said. “We’re thinking about it certainly for our IP set-top box platform, but we’re also looking forward to the point at which video gateways and high-speed data gateways converge. Ultimately, we all see this moving to a converged platform where it’s supporting data products and voice products and video products.”

This is a lot to process, and it seems complicated, but the end result is really simple:

1) we are working with our peers in the cable industry to develop a unified set of standards for set-top box software
2) once those standards are implemented, it will be faster and easier to update set-top boxes
3) more next-gen set-top boxes will be available more quickly to our customers
4) ultimately, we hope to converge this, so that the future of TV and broadband merges, making it easier to bring you, the customer faster, better products for broadband, TV, voice and more.

It’s all a part of our commitment to make Time Warner Cable customers’ lives simple and easy – and bring you better products faster than ever.

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