Microsoft juices boxes with software

TV Foundation Edition allows interactive ads, movies-on-demand

CHICAGO — Microsoft said at the National Cable TV Assn. Show that it had finally delivered, after several years of false starts, software that gives current boxes more of the power and interactivity of computers.

The Microsoft TV Foundation Edition will provide ways to create and combine interactive program guides, movies-on-demand services and interactive advertising, with software that runs on both a cable operator’s headend equipment and home set-top boxes.

“What we’ve done now is gotten literally the power of the PC in the set-top box,” Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said Wednesday, the last day of the confab. “For a number of years, we pursued a strategy of writing software for a new hardware base that didn’t come together. So we focused on what can we do with today’s boxes. It’s exciting to achieve that after many years of rich dialogue with the cable industry.”

Comcast prexy and CEO Brian Roberts said the software’s rollout, on systems owned by his company and a Mexican cable operator, was a “pretty important milestone for Microsoft to have a deployable product (that will fulfill) the dream of getting more functionality into the set-top box. Now, we’re ready to get going.”

Microsoft has invested heavily in the cable business, buying stakes in Comcast and Cox Communications and developing software over the past seven years. Gates has talked about the potential of cable’s high-speed networks for providing movies and other video programming, vidgaming, telephone connections and many other kinds of Internet-based services.

Roberts called Microsoft’s cable initiatives as important a shift in priorities as Gates’ decision to push Microsoft onto the Internet in the mid-1990s.

“I think it’s something we’ve got to understand better,” Roberts said. “I’m still trying to understand all the implications.”