This $300 gizmo could turn the Web into a medium for mass entertainment

For the past several months, the $500 Web cruiser has been the talk of the computer industry. But while no one was looking, a $300 noncomputer has crept onto the scene and is about to hit store shelves. Meanwhile, the computer-like cruiser is still on the drawing board. After spending a couple of weeks using WebTV, I think we may now have the product that could turn the World Wide Web into a mass-entertainment medium.

Starting around the end of September, Sony and Philips Consumer Electronics will begin selling Web-cruising boxes developed in secret by startup WebTV Networks (known until June by the deliberately misleading name of Artemis Research). With list prices of $349 for the Sony (941 768-7669) and $329 for Philips' Magnavox unit (800 531-0039), the retail price tag for getting on the Net should quickly drop below $300.

SIMPLICITY. WebTV is radically different from anything on the market. The main unit of my prototype was the soul of simplicity: It is about the size of a cable-TV set-top box and plugs directly into a phone line and either a TV or VCR.

WebTV's control is a remote that can also be programmed to work a TV set. To start the service, I pushed the ``Web'' button on the remote. The box dialed WebTV's Internet service ($19.95 a month for unlimited access) and, after a brief registration procedure, I was looking at the WebTV home page on my 27-in. TV, ready to surf.

The first thing I noticed was the picture quality. A big obstacle to cheap, TV-based Web cruisers has been lousy image quality--hardly surprising when a 27-in. TV set costs half as much as a 17-in. computer monitor. Developers at WebTV, mostly refugees from Apple Computer, have pulled off some wizardry. Even relatively small text is readable across the room, while pictures look better than anything you'll see on broadcast TV.

The remote took me to Web pages using arrow keys like those used with on-screen menus on most current TVs. A couple of extra buttons provided ``home'' and ``back'' functions on WebTV's distinctive browser. I found the whole setup a lot easier to use than a VCR.

WebTV is substantially cheaper than the $500 target for a machine built to Oracle's Network Computer standard or the $600 Apple-designed Pippin World Web browser/game station from Bandai. But there's a big conceptual difference as well. The others are building cheaper computers; WebTV is aiming for a new kind of television. ``This is a living room, entertainment-oriented device,'' says WebTV CEO Steve Perlman.

My experience with WebTV showed me both its potential and how much must be done to realize it. WebTV does just two things: the Web and E-mail. For E-mail, you can type by clicking on an on-screen keyboard. But if you want to attempt anything more than very occasional short E-mail notes, you will want to spend an extra $50 or so for a wireless keyboard.

Bigger problems are speed and content. WebTV makes the best possible use of a conventional phone line, partly by storing the most popular pages on WebTV's own computer system so you don't get caught in traffic jams going to different sites. You can also suspend surfing to take a call. But the 28,800-bits-per-second speed limit is a real problem. The graphically rich pages that look so good on WebTV require the same agonizing wait as on a computer. At least with WebTV, you can watch your favorite show while the page dribbles in.

SATELLITE MINIDISH. The system is designed to support high-speed communications eventually, including cable modems. Perlman believes that the best technology for WebTV will be a satellite minidish, such as Hughes Electronics' DSS, although the necessary improvements aren't in sight yet.

WebTV also requires a Web that is much more visual than today's. This is an entertainment appliance, not a research tool. You can't save or print pages. On the other hand, an online tour of an art gallery was beautiful on WebTV. Support for a number of multimedia technologies, including Java programs, RealAudio sound, and QuickTime movies, was missing from my prototype, but they should be ready soon.

It's easy to imagine what's needed to make TV-based browsing take off: shopping, with click-to-order multimedia catalogs. (WebTV comes with a slot for the ``smart'' credit card of the future.) Movie guides with previews on demand. Travel information, with on-screen booking services. Online games.

Already, Web content is getting smarter and more consumer-oriented. High-speed transmission will take longer to develop, but it, too, is coming. And while the technical virtues of WebTV are impressive, even more so is a price tag that makes it a potential impulse purchase. The Web appliance has become reality.



Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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