When you watch the latest episode of your favorite TV show on Netflix or On-demand on the AppleTV, Roku, or other device, do you ever wonder how we got here? Today we simply push a button, select content, click play, and there it is-- streamed over the internet right to your television. This didn't just happen, it started somewhere. Your cable box with all of its fancy interactive elements, which will soon be obsolete, wasn't just created overnight. Do you know where it started?
In the early 1990s across the world there were a series of cable television trials called "ITV", which stood for interactive television. The vision for interactive television was not only to provide the standard television channels with a viewing guide, but to provide television content on demand. The idea was: you would simply go to a menu on your set-top box, pick the show you wanted to watch, and it would stream directly from a network of servers sitting at the cable company right to your television. These systems were being put out in small groups to randomly selected homes. Chances are you have never heard of these trials. They were often limited in size due to the fact that the equipment was priced in the millions and the systems were antiquated, slow, and buggy. Most of these systems would be tested for a few months and then scrapped due to the costs and problems. There needed to be a better way, and thankfully there was. Unknown to most, Apple would have a major role in developing the future of television. Most of the services you have today on your cable provider can be credited to Apple and a few other companies that built the first affordable, reliable, and scalable interactive television system.
In 1993 Apple had a tough year financially. While they had a nice increase in sales that year, profits were down significantly. They needed a way to branch out and leverage their technology in other markets. The most valuable item in their portfolio that could branch them out of the desktop market was QuickTime. QuickTime is a piece of software that Apple developed in 1991 to allow Macintosh System Software 6 and later to play video and audio on the Macintosh. In May of 1991 it was demoed on stage at the World Wide Developers Conference where a 320 x 240 resolution video of the original Macintosh 1984 advertisement was played. At the time it was a technological breakthrough. QuickTime was the key to all multimedia on the Macintosh and, soon, your living room. To get there, Apple would be partnering with two companies: nCube and Oracle.
nCube was a company that originally made computers for parallel computing, which is when multiple computers are connected together to make one fast computer. In 1988, just five years after they opened the doors, Oracle's co-founder Larry Ellison became nCube's largest shareholder and changed the focus of the company to building and developing video-on-demand servers. Oracle was already developing a product for managing interactive television content, Oracle Media Server. This server side solution handled the storage, retrieval and management of movies, music, photographs, and text articles. Oracle had the software, but needed the backend hardware for the software to run. nCube's hardware expertise and solutions would be a perfect fit for this software product. Oracle and nCube had the hardware and software to store and send the content quickly, they had the software to manage all of the assets in the system, the only problem left was: how do you deliver the content to the end user? For this task Oracle and nCube reached out the the best company in the world for user experience, Apple. Once Apple was brought into the fold for development of a set-top box, everything began to take shape.
Apple, nCube, and Oracle decided that the only way to store and play the video was to use the universal standard in computer video, QuickTime. They chose to use the compression format of MPEG1. MPEG1 was developed in 1988 and was designed to compress video to a VHS quality image. It compressed the video to a 26:1 ratio but was able to keep the audio at 6:1 which was CD quality. The creators of MPEG1 specifically designed it to play the video and audio back at a rate of 1.5 Mbit/s. This rate was chosen so that it could play in the native data rate of audio CDs and be reliable over a T-1 or E-1 data connection. These were the most common commercial internet connection methods at the time which operated at the same speed, and coincidentally, what the ITV system would use. Another advantage of this format was that hardware-based acceleration technology already existed and could easily be integrated into the products, as well as the fact that QuickTime already supported this format natively. All that was left now was the hardware.
Apple decided to use the LC475 (a desktop computer) as the base for the ITV box. It's compact size lent itself to being adapted for a set-top box case. The LC475 featured a 25 MHz Motorola 68LC040 processor, not exactly enough to play and decode the MPEG1 video at full screen. So Apple decided to add an MPEG1 decoder chip onto the logic board to handle playing the video. This chip would be solely responsible for playing the video and the Motorola processor would not have to handle any of it. Apple would also remove the Mac's DB-15 monitor port and replace it with a composite video and audio as well as an S-video out. Connecting to most televisions required a coaxial RF connector, so Apple added one for output to the TV. Another RF connector would be added to receive the analog cable channels from the cable company. Since Apple was already selling television related products, it was not a major task to integrate them, despite the LC475 not natively supporting them. Apple would also add an ethernet port for the data connection that would receive streaming video and interactive content. For the European versions SCART connectors would also be added (these were like an analog version of HDMI that was only used in Europe). Apple also left the serial port for printers as well as the ADB port for a keyboard and mouse.
They would also leave the SCSI interface for connecting a CD-ROM drive. The CD-ROM would allow developers to make software specifically for this device. For memory, Apple would ship it with the standard 4MB of RAM but would increase the size of the ROM chips to 2MB to accommodate the lack of a hard drive. These boxes would not have any storage, they would get all the data they needed from the nCube servers back at the cable company. So how could you have a computer without a hard drive? NetBoot.
In order for Apple to reduce costs of the devices and provide a quick and easy way to update the entire system at once, they chose to use the NetBoot process. This process works by storing enough of the operating system on the computer's ROM (Read Only Memory) chip to load the firmware needed to begin the startup process. Once the ROM chip has booted the Mac enough to run simple commands it uses the network connection to talk to the nCube servers and request the files to finish booting. The files are transferred over the network using the TFTP (Trivial File Transfer Protocol), which is basically a very simple protocol similar to FTP. This protocol requires no authentication or user interaction which makes it ideal for NetBoot. The nCube servers contain the full version of the Macintosh operating system. The files are read over the network and the Macintosh boots up off of a virtual hard drive on the nCube server. While fully booting the set-top box takes much longer with NetBoot than a regular hard drive, the cable company only has to manage one version of the operating system. Every Apple set-top box will use a single virtual hard drive image to boot up and run applications. Having everything stored on the server means that once you apply the update or add an application to that one image, everyone will then have them. The only challenge here is not to have the set-top box startup from scratch every time you want to watch TV, so Apple added SoftPower. If you've ever used the power button on a Macintosh keyboard, you've used SoftPower. SoftPower will allow the Mac to not only boot up with a button instead of a physical switch, this version will also allow the set-top box to sleep and wake. When you turn the set-top box off, it really goes to sleep, when your turn it on, it wakes up. This allows it to retain everything stored in RAM and not have to reload the entire operating system. The last thing Apple did was include a custom version of the Apple PDS (Processor Direct Slot) connector inside for future device expansion. Apple priced it's set-top box at $750. Now with all the hardware solutions selected and completed, what about software?
For the operating system of the set-top box Apple would use a modified version of its System 7.1.1 software, some of which would be embedded in the ROM. Apple had used this process before with some earlier compact Macintosh computers. This version would be modified to run lighter, not run the Macintosh Finder, and show a custom boot screen. When the Macintosh finishes booting it loads up the application for the Interactive Television instead of the Finder.
The image here shows what the British Telecommunications boot screen looks like when you turn that version of the Apple set-top box on. Early prototype set-top boxes can actually take a the ROM chip from an LC475 and boot up like a normal LC475 with an external drive connected. This was probably done to allow testing of early software prototypes before the entire system was created. Now with the set-top box developed, there was still something missing. In order for this product to be a big success, Apple, nCube, & Oracle needed to get third party developers a way to make applications for it. For that challenge nCube would build a solution.
In May of 1995 nCube released nVision, a low cost developer platform for the ITV system. The development kit would cost $299,995.00 and would include a desk-side nCube MediaCUBE server running Oracle Media Server and MediaNet, 8 Apple Interactive Television boxes, 10 gigabytes of disk storage, 16 I/O channels, a CT3 interface for T1 streams, an ATM interface for E1 streams, and networking components. These kits were capable of delivering 40 video streams at once. Developers were critical to the success of this product, much like they were the key to the iPhone's success. The goal was to get developers to provide software for home shopping, banking, stocks, news, weather, local life applications and more. With the amazing potential, world class hardware and software, the sky was the limit.
By the spring of 1994 Apple became the number one supplier of set-top boxes in the UK. The business world projected that Apple would have installed over 600,000 set-top boxes in the UK by 1995. To put that number in perspective, there were already that many Macintosh computers there in 1994. Disney even purchased complete systems for its theme parks. It put the Apple boxes in guest rooms and provided content, tours, and entertainment for its guests. This product had the potential to put Apple products in hotels, businesses, and homes all over the world. Market penetration for this product could have been as big as the iPhone would be for Apple over ten years later. If this product had been a success, Apple would not have needed Steve Jobs to come back and save it. The technology world today would be a much different place and Apple a much different company. So what happened?
There was only one real problem that would sum up all the smaller ones: the technology was way ahead of its time. The Apple box coupled with nCube and Oracle technology was an amazing product with huge potential but it was too soon. The data connections needed in the home were just not cost effective enough and would add a huge expense to build out the system nationally (total cost roughly $2000-$5000 per household). With broadband internet coming in 1996 it did not make sense for cable providers to invest in building out a system that would become obsolete and incompatible with the next generation digital cable system. Today our high-speed internet connection is just there, it's that simple--there is no cost to bring a connected device into the home. Research was another enemy of this project. While the cable providers found that people spent more money on on-demand paid products than pay-per-view, they also found people canceled premium channels to offset the cost. Licensing deals on the content were still in their infancy, and on-demand content was almost nonexistent. The cost of creating content was also a financial factor that had to be considered. Developers were scarce, and investing $300,000 in a system that may not be there tomorrow was a concern for most major companies.
At the end of the day all the cable providers unanimously decided on an approach to the future: evolution. They decided to slowly grow the infrastructure and slowly add services instead of rolling out a complete product all at once. The plug was pulled. All of the various trials including this one were ended, the systems recalled, dismantled, and trashed. Thanks to eBay some of us can touch the history and share it with others. For the cable companies, it's a long and forgotten relic of an era where everyone was in such a hurry to bring interactive television to the masses, they didn't stop to think if it was the right time to do so. Most professionals and industry historians don't remember the trials with Apple, nCube, & Oracle. The history is missing from most essays, industry publications, and archives. All that remains as proof is the manual hosted on Apple's servers, scarce news feeds from the '90s floating around the internet, and the occasional eBay auction. History has forgotten the visionaries from all three companies that laid the stones for the road to the future. The data collected during these trials has been used to shape the television services of today--that is a small consolation for the losses suffered in its wake.
Apple's partner nCube would go on to develop new generations of the product without the Apple front end, but the dot-com bubble burst would begin the destruction of this company and lead it to being a forgotten bought-out entity that is all but gone. Oracle today is bigger than ever and hasn't lost much sleep over this failed attempt, but its Media Server product is long forgotten. This project took Apple's sales to record numbers in 1995 but the cancelation of it would contribute to the record losses the following years. In this failure it should be clear that Apple has always had a clear vision for the future, but they are always early to the game. It's also important to realize that Apple isn't the result of one man's vision, but the collection of smart visionaries within its walls. Apple developed this amazing product while under the leadership of John Sculley, and then continued under two of the companies worst CEOs in its history. Today I tip my hat to the great people responsible for this product as they did not let us down; the cable giants and telecommunications companies let us down and robbed us of the future we could have had, or rather should have had.
Apple's road to the living room nearly cost it everything, but Apple is in our pockets today and in almost all of our living rooms once again, almost ten years later.
Known Cable Providers Using The Apple Interactive Television:
Plein Cable (France)
British Telecommunications (UK)
Bell Atlantic (USA)
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