Televisionaries: My Personal Reflection of the Chaos and Innovation of the Digital Revolution
I just finished reading an excellent book titled Televisionaries and written by Marc Tayer, an industry trailblazer who previously served as the VP of Global Marketing at Motorola and has three decades of experience in the media and communication technology business. Televisionaries is a fascinating walk through the history of digital television that details the evolution of the way people around the world access, select, consume and produce video content.
The book had a profound effect on me because I am actually a part of the plot. I worked with Marc at General Instrument (GI) as a software engineer and collaborated on many of the projects he describes. The book brought back memories of overcoming challenging projects and working with exceptionally bright people who had the vision and the tenacity to fight initial satellite piracy, design and deploy the first digital satellite conditional access system (DigiCipher) and design a digital rights management (DRM) system for the initial Internet TV streaming system called Aerocast. My first experience with pay-TV piracy was the implementation of electronic countermeasures of the original VideoCipher conditional access (CA) system. While one of the GI teams was working with the FBI, the specially created software team was working on algorithms that changed the duration of certain decryption keys, scattered the beginnings of key intervals across many different TV channels and implemented other tricks that disrupted the smooth operation of the illegal satellite receivers.
These countermeasures were deployed while a brand new system was being developed to make such a security breach much more difficult in the future. This was a valuable lesson about the strength of any security technology, the power of motivation, the role of the convenience and usability factors in both legal and illegal systems, and the strength of combining software and hardware aspects of security elements.
Working with the GI systems engineering team and the software engineering team to build the new DBS center and the CA system in particular was a multi-year project. This system had to implement all of the newly designed security features of the VideoCipher II Plus system, while also being backwards compatible to the existing receivers still in the field. Only after all of them were replaced with new receivers could the old breached system be completely turned off, eliminating piracy after years of effort.
The EuroCypher system was my first international project that involved building a similar CA head-end system. The end result brought a large number of TV channels to the UK, designed for British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) which eventually became BSkyB.
PrimeStar was the first digital TV (DTV) project with which I was involved. It was not just the innovation of the digital TV reaching all the way to the consumers that made this project unique. We also introduced several new technologies and methodologies into the software development process. The use of object-oriented analysis and design (OOAD) as a new design methodology and C++ as the new programming language made the project not only challenging, but also very exciting, as the whole software team was fully participating in creating the cutting edge software design. Utilizing a commercial relational database system to manage TV channels, encryption keys, subscriber entitlements and cryptographic messages introduced a new design element into a CA head-end intended for large capacity and scalability. Even though PrimeStar was eventually acquired by DirecTV, the system was running literally on autopilot for several years before it was completely transitioned over to DirecTV, demonstrating its solid design and stability.
The end of the 20th century represented the beginning of IP technologies, broadband data and access to the Internet for everybody. It also introduced the idea of delivering commercial video over the Internet. It initially sounded like heresy or insanity, but people at GI were used to that by then. After the merger with GI, Motorola created a new start-up called Aerocast, which became one of the first over-the-top (OTT) companies, even before the term was coined.
Although I did not join Aerocast, I was tasked with creating a team at Motorola to design and develop an IP-based DRM system (IPRM). Aerocast had some success with ESPN, which later became ESPN 3, but it was too early to make it a commercial success. We repurposed the DRM system for the newly developing IPTV market and later on extended it to support home networking and streaming to mobile devices.
One equally exciting activity that Marc did not cover in detail but Motorola did sponsor was interactive TV. Mainly driven by the research done in Paul Moroney’s Advanced Technology team and the leadership in the ATSC and DVB standards working groups, the vision was to enable personalized and interactive apps running on a TV (or a set-top box) associated with individual channels, extending the passive experience of a traditional TV. Standardizing the execution environment around Java and defining a set of TV-oriented APIs allowed a development of apps across a wide variety of devices.
Even though the cable industry did not embrace this paradigm at that time, it became the precursor to the exploding app store concept popularized by Apple’s iPhone and later by the smart phone industry in general. The recent versions of smart TVs are bringing back the original concept of interactive TV apps. This shows the crooked and unpredictable path of innovation and introduction of new technologies that depends not only on the technology itself but also user acceptance and sustainable business models around it.
I would like to thank Marc for taking the time to research, organize all of the major events and milestones and interview the key players who made the revolution happen. Televisionaries allowed me to not only reflect on the last 25 years of the digital TV revolution, but also my own learning, contributions, achievements and obstacles faced in this turbulent digital TV industry.
But what struck me the most from the book was the realization that, despite the exponential technological growth and innovation that we are experiencing around us in all aspects of the digital world, it has taken a quarter of a century to complete the HDTV revolution in the western hemisphere, and it will take a decade or two more to reach the rest of the globe.
If anyone is interested in the excitement of digital technology and wants to learn about the brilliant and brave visionaries that have paved the path, I wholeheartedly recommend Marc Tayer’s book. You can purchase a copy of Televisionaries here. I’d also love to read your thoughts, reactions and recollections of your own in the comments section below.