BACK TO THE FUTURE

By Andy Grossman

Silicon Valley execs are a welcome throwback Intertainer's Jonathan Taplin did not come to Santa Clara, Calif., to tap dance. And suddenly the cable/broadband industry is fun again.

The president/CEO of the video-on-demand company presented CTAM Broadband Conference attendees last week with a simple, albeit, self-serving proposition to jump-start VOD and interactive TV: Just make all the standards for digital set-top boxes Internet-based. Make the Internet protocol (IP) the standard for the industry. Everyone wins, Taplin insisted: Using IP with the MPEG-4 standard would cut costs by more than 70% while freeing up more bandwidth.

All that would make digital set-tops run more like Ferraris rather than Hyundais.

Unfortunately, in order for the boxes to have enough oomph, cable operators would have to put a powerful Celeron processor in the box (at about $85 per) and cut the homes per node size down to say, 150. The standard now is 500. While cutting node sizes costs less than a rebuild, it isn't that cheap.

Taplin's modest proposal comes at a time when some operators and middleware companies are trying to figure out what customers really want and what really needs to be in the box. Operators are moving ultra-cautiously in fear of making the wrong decisions.

To many in the hallways afterward, his plan had as much chance as a Pat Buchanan rally in nearby Berkeley. But Taplin, like Buchanan, is a man who likes to make a point. Unlike most recent sleepy cable shows, people left the room talking animatedly about the session - Vulcan Ventures' president Bill Savoy also talked - rather than just making their dinner plans.

The new interactive and streaming media companies invading cable conferences are a welcome relief to the blandness that has infected most shows. They're not afraid to take a stand, shake things up and say what they think, regardless of the possible reaction. Surely Taplin knew his rivals would be slamming him in the hallways and the cocktail party afterward.

At last week's wonderful gem of a conference here in this sheltered Silicon Valley town about 40 minutes from San Francisco - CTAM smartly placed its confab where the biggest distraction was the hotel sports bar that you pass on the way to sessions - registration exceeded CTAM's expectations by about 50%.

It would be nice if the conference didn't get too big because last week's show had the cozy, frontier feeling of what the early cable years must have been like, when the NCTA Show was held in intimate suites rather than vast, character-less convention halls.

There are major differences, of course, between now and 20 years ago. The stakes are much higher - it's much riskier for cable operators to pick the wrong ITV service provider or middleware company than to put on a new channel. And, of course, consolidation changed everything.

Taplin's boldness is not unique among his entrepreneurial peers in new media. As opposed to cable operators, who are not used to facing competition, many of these advanced services folk thrive in the Wild, Wild West atmosphere of the new cable industry.

They love to bash each other - but politely, of course. After all, this is Silicon Valley, not New York City. Taplin called TiVo and Replay's personal digital video recorder devices "interim technology, like CD-ROMs." VOD is the real future. Hmmm, what does Taplin sell? Never mind, he was asked a question, and he answered it. No tap dancing there.

Then there are the executives who are competing with Liberate for the platform inside the box, who insist they are not rivals of the company - right before they launch into a soliloquy on why their product is much, much better than Liberate's is. They remind me of my dad, who would tell me he was too busy to talk when I called him at work and then chatter away for 45 minutes. He couldn't help it, and neither can these executives.

It's a refreshing change from the cautiousness of many cable executives who, in the face of competition they are still not quite sure how to handle, hunker down and circle the wagons.

These people are so much fun, you want to sit down for a drink with them. Sure, they'll pump their own products, but that's just the price of admission.

Attendees roundly panned May's NCTA Show, and there are concerns in the hallways that the Western Show might be the same sleepy affair as cable operators move turtle-like into interactive TV. Desperate ITV companies, eager to make a splash on Wall Street among operators or venture capitalists, make "huge" announcements on operator partnerships and launches which usually amount to more heat than fire.

But the coziness and relaxed atmosphere of CTAM's broadband show last week drew plenty of raves, and it wasn't for the great restaurants in Santa Clara.