Late last year, a company called WebTV Networks rolled out a practical, inexpensive system for surfing the World Wide Web via a television set. A lot of savvy people thought it would be the technology world's next big thing, a cool breeze on the hot desert of technical phobia.
Despite the expectations, the idea has not caught fire. But two recent developments--the planned acquisition of WebTV by Microsoft, and the federal government's approval of a plan for digital television transmission--prompt a new look.
The promise of WebTV is easy enough to appreciate: Look, Ma, access to the Internet with no special commands, no computers, no intricate learning required. Get the kids into the living room, and let them play with a relatively familiar remote control and they, too, can have help with their homework.
WebTV, a start-up company backed by a number of large corporations (including Times Mirror Co., publisher of The Times) licensed the technology to consumer electronics manufacturers Philips and Sony. They sold a basic setup for about $350, with extra costs for keyboard and other (important) add-ons.
WebTV offers a pretty good-looking display of Web pages that are easy to view from across a room rather than 10 inches away, and a setup that can be manipulated either by keyboard or by a remote-control device. Type fonts can be made to be more readable, for example. And it is easy enough to click your way from site to site, either with a keyboard or the remote. The companies collectively committed about $50 million to educate the public about the technology during the Christmas shopping season and pursued plans to make the system easy enough, small enough and cheap enough to put inside just about any television.
But the holiday season came and went, and WebTV acknowledged that sales were disappointing. Installation still wasn't quite easy enough for a lot of people, it seems. The public was not waiting for WebTV, did not understand it or found it too expensive.
"We discovered that the learning curve here for people is a lot steeper than we had thought," a spokesman for the company explained. "We believed that people would get the idea right away. It is clear that we will have to do more education about what our product is and what it would do."
Then there were the announcements of the last couple of weeks.
First came the government decision clearing the way for digital-television signal transmission. Some public interest groups and newspaper editorials criticized the decision as too much of a giveaway to broadcasters. But the basic approval of digital transmission was never at issue.
Then Microsoft said it was buying WebTV for $425 million. Although the software giant is laying down all number of bets for a variety of reasons, the WebTV deal in particular is an important signpost on the road to the much-discussed "convergence" of computer appliances and the television set.
For years, an argument has raged about whether the computer will become more TV-like or the TV will become more "intelligent." Obviously, the question is of tremendous consequence to manufacturers.
For the consumer, though, it will make little difference in the long run. Microsoft will probably license WebTV technology to a variety of appliance manufacturers, bringing closer the day when people can choose from among a variety of methods for accessing the Internet.
What results from this decision to allow digital transmission over the next 18 months?
Making transmission digital will allow more information to be transmitted more quickly or at a higher resolution, or even pave the way for more complex information to be distributed on television bandwidths. At its heart, digital should mean a faster pipeline to the home or office appliance for information, movies, software or computer programs.
For those buying the new television sets in 18 months, there is little in the announcement that says televisions will become more computer-like. Consumers should be able to see the same content available now in better reproduction. They should be able to read text on a screen, for example.
By itself, digital transmission will not lead to a more intelligent television. Combined with the kind of thinking behind WebTV, however, there is a chance for a significant step ahead. With Microsoft money behind them, I'd bet that the WebTV folks will be able to re-engineer their technology to fit within the television.
That brings us back to the lag in accepting WebTV.
Clearly there are more televisions out there than computers. What WebTV and now Microsoft are probably betting on, in part, is that they will be able to appeal to committed televisions viewers who will never choose the computer. In particular, a company spokesman noted that schools in particular may well fuel the early adoption of smarter televisions.
Personally, I am less interested in the nature of the appliance than by what we use it for.
What the recent announcements make more likely is that consumers finally will have a real choice about how much Web they will accept in their life, and how they will accept it. As the appliance question melts away, we finally will face the question of whether we really want the content.
Terry Schwadron is editor of Life & Style and oversees latimes.com, The Times' Web site. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com