The current buzzword of the Internet Economy is "convergence", that magical intersection where the Web will meet television, and everyone will make boatloads of money. At the moment, no one is entirely sure how television and the Web will converge, when the convergence will happen or even what kind of interactive programming consumers might want.
Nonetheless, everyone involved -- broadcasters, Web-content providers, chipmakers and hardware companies -- seems certain the day is coming. And they all want to control tomorrow's set-top boxes and next-generation TVs.
Sun Microsystems, for one, is lobbying to ensure that its Java programming language will play a central role. Java, Sun argues, is ideal for adding streaming video, animations, interactive games, e-commerce security and other features into digital-television content.
Unfortunately for Sun, not everyone agrees. The software is too big, too complex and too much of a resource hog to be used on TV platforms, critics say. Annoyed by the lack of Java support for television applications, even from traditional allies, Sun has taken its ball and gone home. It refuses to work with other software companies. Instead, the company is enlisting hardware makers, broadcasters and Web-content companies in a group called Java TV.
Java TV is going head-to-head with the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum, a group formed last year to develop TV and Web convergence standards. Because the group won't mandate the use of Java, Sun won't join.
Both Sun and the ATVEF are rushing to win the favour of the national and international standards committees. So far, Sun has been quicker than its rival in producing partners. Last month, for instance, the company said nine hardware companies were backing its efforts. But such support seems lukewarm.
A source at LG Electronics, a Korean manufacturer and one of Sun's primary hardware partners says, "All we're saying is that we'll support Sun when the technology becomes feasible."
"I know Java's slogan is 'write once, run anywhere', but the fact is if you want to get your content onto the most platforms right now, Java is not the way," says Miguel Garcia, VP of software development and technology strategies at CNN.com. "Even when enhanced TV arrives, Java won't be the core engine." CNN's site uses Java in a limited capacity, for interactive games and internal use, but Garcia says it's too complex and expensive to deploy widely.
Sun insists Java will win the war, however. "If you put Java into a set-top box today, you will still be able to view content done in HTML," says Eric Chu, who heads the Java TV effort. "But if you can only read HTML, you won't be able to read Java. That's why companies need to adopt Java now -- so they'll be able to view Java content once it's ready."
On the other side of the fight is a consortium of companies, including Sun's archrival Microsoft and some traditional Sun allies like Network Computer. The companies have taken today's Internet standards, such as HTML, and spruced them up to support television content on the Web. Content companies like CNN, NBC and Disney support the ATVEF standard, which they like because it's free and based on standards they already use. Set-top box makers like it, as well.
Microsoft's involvement, though, makes some people nervous.
"Just because they're using so-called 'open' standards like HTML, doesn't mean we feel comfortable using [ATVEF]," says Vincent Dureau, CTO of OpenTV, which makes software for interactive TV and is backing Sun's Java initiative. "We have no intention of supporting ATVEF or any standard Microsoft comes up with masquerading as the next great thing."
Sun has one critical advantage over ATVEF: It seems to have the ear of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, the governmental body responsible for creating the standards upon which American television platforms are built.
Eventually, Java is likely to play a role in digital television. Just how it does that is still in question. Even Microsoft, which takes shots at Java, still plans to use it in limited capacities. "The conflict wouldn't exist if it weren't for bottlenecks," says Bill Keating, senior VP of business development with Microsoft's WebTV unit. "Someday, when we figure out how to squeeze more information into your TV, we'll be able to use both technologies. Just not today."