WebTV – Interesting Tech, Bad Timing And Interface

Naturally, Microsoft contends that variations of Windows CE, the slimmed-down version of its flagship operating system, will be the best choice for the brains inside these devices. In fact, the new WebTV boxes have their own operating system with a bit of Windows CE running underneath. By doing this, Microsoft is encouraging software developers to write applications for its set tops, using Windows CE tools they already know. Small applications for the WebTV devices, as well as games and other home-oriented programs, are expected to ship this year.

It's just that cheezy.

It’s just that cheezy.

It’s a long way from the latest version of WebTV to Microsoft Icebox OS 4.0. But while Microsoft and other companies wait for the Internet appliance market to develop, they’re quietly turning your home PC into something that looks more like a TV.

According to specifications proposed earlier this year by Intel, Microsoft, and Compaq–all of which have some clout in such matters–a year from now, most new home computers will have TV tuner cards that can receive digital television broadcasts. The companies say the tuner cards will add less than $50 to the price of a PC, and that cost will be absorbed in the normal erosion of PC pricing.

Microsoft is also adding TV-related features to its forthcoming Windows 98. Currently expected to ship in the second quarter of 1998, the operating system will have several new features that support “broadcast PC,” including the ability to receive data transmissions along with broadcast video and audio.

And just as Microsoft added its Internet Explorer browser to Windows 95, it will put “Television Explorer” in Windows 98, according to Pierre deVries, director of advanced TV projects at Microsoft. The operating system will be able to gather information from a variety of online television programming guides–cable, broadcast, and satellite–and display it in a single grid on screen. This TV guide will let you do things your trusty paper listings can’t: You’ll be able to search all the programs by, say, an actor’s name or a movie genre, and the guide may even help you program your VCR to record shows.

These new products will prepare your PC for upcoming changes to the material you see today both on TV and on the Web. The two types of content are invading each other’s turf.

It’s the Content, Stupid

Today, most of us have little use for a TV tuner card in our PC. But that may soon change. Intel, Microsoft, Compaq, and Lucent Technologies have been pressing broadcasters to begin developing new types of entertainment and educational programming–“content,” as they say in Silicon Valley–that blends video with interactive Web pages and electronic commerce. You’ve probably heard the standard examples: A football game where you can watch the game in one window while calling up player stats from a Web site in another; or an interactive version of Seinfeld that lets you chat with other fans online while watching the show.

But selling will be a big part of this story. In a particularly odious exam- ple, a screen might pop up saying, “Do you like Jerry’s shirt? Order it now for only $39.95.” Or:”Want to book an airline ticket to New York City to go on Kenny Kramer’s unofficial Seinfeld tour? Click here!” For the truly masochistic, new streaming video technologies will enable you to watch 30-minute infomercials embedded in Web pages, and even rewind them and play them back.

These new types of digital content can be viewed on either PCs or TVs. But this doesn’t mean that the Web sites you visit now will start looking like this week’s episode of E.R.: It’s more likely that E.R. will add Internet ele- ments.

WebTV, for example, is working with the producers of prime-time shows to create online content for owners of the new WebTV set-top boxes. A WebTV sub- scriber watching these shows will be able to use new picture-in-picture fea- tures to see the show and Web information at the same time–such as home pages for each show, with e-mail addresses for stars; trivia; and scheduled online chats. Some of this content will be ready when the new WebTV boxes ship in October; more will roll out during 1998. Television shows will feature Web content this year, and the Web will have some TV content, but the two will not fully merge anytime soon.

Why not? For one thing, TVs and PCs will continue to occupy different rooms in many homes, says Mark R. Anderson, president of Technology Alliance Partners, which publishes the Strategic News Service in Friday Harbor, Washington. The “killer” digital TV applications will play on television’s strengths–for example, taking Discovery Channe-type programs and making them more realistic and more interactive. Officials at Microsoft concur with the room theory. For detailed tasks that require your nose to be 18 inches from the screen, the computer is a better tool. For family or group viewing from a distance of 10 or more feet, the TV set is the right appliance.

The New Bandwidth

The remaining stumbling block is, of course, bandwidth. It’s far easier to add small Internet elements to the broadband cable and satellite networks than to add huge amounts of video data to thin PC Internet connections. But here too, big changes are under way.

Broadcast companies recently won wide new swaths of the public airwaves for broadcasting high-resolution television signals. Exactly how broadcasters will use this spectrum remains unclear, but computer companies are lobbying them to adopt a strategy that would enable video and data transmissions to PCs as early as next year. That’s well ahead of the arrival of the High Definition Television sets for which the bandwidth was allocated but which won’t be available for years.

The main sticking point for broadcasters is whether to adopt the progressive scan system used by all computer monitors to display images on screen, or the interlace system now used by TV sets. If broadcasters don’t back progressive scanning, the best-laid plans of the computer companies will be thwarted, unless the cable TV and satellite broadcast industries can be persuaded to come around.

Microsoft’s $1 billion gamble with Comcast–which may be followed by other cable and satellite investments–is a way to influence the cable camp. Now that cable companies have recovered somewhat from their disastrous “interac- tive television” trials in the early 1990s, most are once again interested in home PC users. They’ll be competing to bring high-speed video, voice, and data services to the home through fiber, coaxial cable, satellite, and digital sub- scriber line telephone services.

The relationship between Microsoft and the broadcasters will be in a state of flux for a while. Microsoft can reap vast new revenues if it becomes a content provider of digital programming, and it seems to have every intention of doing so. It has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on expanding programming for its online Microsoft Network and the MSNBC television channel, as well as on developing online consumer services like the Car Point automobile-shopping service and the Expedia travel site. At the same time, the company is working with broadcasters to develop additional content for existing television shows. Microsoft is positioning itself to shape hardware, software, and content in this new arena.

“They’re just playing a roulette wheel and putting bets on all the numbers,” says analyst Adam Schoenfeld of Jupiter Communications, a research firm in New York City. “They’re making sure they will be a player, wherever the market goes.”

Sun and Oracle Weigh In

Will anyone be able to compete with Microsoft? Sun and Oracle certainly have the power to try. In a deal whose worth Jupiter Communications estimates at about $60 million, Sun recently acquired Diba, a company in Menlo Park, California. Diba develops software and technologies to be licensed to con- sumer-electronics companies for new digital devices–from telephones to set-top boxes to TVs.

Farid Dibachi, general manager of consumer technologies for Sun Microelec- tronics, is optimistic about Sun’s chances for success. “Microsoft wants to own everything, from soup to nuts, plus content,” he says. “The big difference between us and them is that we provide enabling technologies. At the end of the day, there is going to be a clash between the brand name of Microsoft and the brand names of big consumer-electronics companies.”

For its part, Sun is promoting its own Java language as the “write once, run anywhere” brains for operating the consumer appliances. Sun asserts that Java, more than Windows CE, will enable creative solutions for controlling new generations of low-cost, low-power smart devices. According to Sun, if con- sumers have to reach the Net by using a powerful Pentium-based PC running Windows, the technology has failed.

Last August Oracle completed its purchase of Navio Communications, a company previously owned by Netscape that is creating browsers for set-top boxes and other consumer appliances. Navio has been folded into Oracle’s Network Computer group, in a deal that analysts estimate was also worth about $60 mil- lion. At press time, several consumer-electronics vendors, including RCA and Zenith, were working on consumer products using the Oracle technology.

The Net Results

It’s too soon to evaluate which company’s product plans look the most promis- ing. But it is clear that by this time next year, many people will own home PCs with more TV capabilities, and more consumers will be surfing the Web using devices other than their computers. While the new WebTV device–the best-looking of the current set-top boxes–is basic at best, Microsoft plans to upgrade the WebTV service over the course of 1998.

These changes will surely influence new content. Will they lead to smarter television, or will they merely help to dumb down the Internet? Benefits as well as perils await in the evolving digital arena.

“Television right now is purely dumb,” says Strategic News Service’s Ander- son.”TV is top-down, broadcast, shut up and listen, I’m going to show you what you see. That’s all going to change. The power will shift from broadcasters to customers, and that’s already under way. There will be more networks and more kinds of information available, because people will be exercising choice.”

Gary Chapman, director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin, takes a less optimistic view. “The new media industry of electronic information is rapidly being transformed into a digitized version of the old media, dominated by the same corporate giants and purveying the same mass-market, middle-of-the-road mush,” he says.

And so the technology soap opera plays on. Will PCs define the future of broadcasting? Can Sun and Oracle thwart Microsoft’s plans for domination? Will we start hearing, “Honey, answer the TV, will you? I’m watching the telephone”?

For the answers, tune in next year–PC or TV, it’s your choice.

PC-TV – A Blast From TV’s Past

Because there are no standards in what is known as the PC-TV category, products from different manufacturers will be incompatible. For consumers to have confidence in this new product, and for this new category to grow, open industry standards based on today’s technology must be established. Such standards will allow companies from both the PC and CE industries to develop compatible PC-Theater products. Consumers must be able to select a display and a PC from different manufacturers and use them together as a system without needing custom cables and complicated setup procedures. In addition, the standards must be compatible with existing standards, so PC Theatre displays and computers may be used with standard PC and CE products.

TV on PC - still in effect!

TV on PC – still in effect!

Last year, a consortium consisting of Compaq, Hitachi, Intel, Mitsubishi Electric, NEC Technologies, Philips Electronics, Thomson Consumer Electronics, and Toshiba announced the PC Theater Initiative and support for standards that will be created for this product category. The primary focus of this initiative is to develop interoperability standards between PCs and large-screen displays capable of displaying high-quality progressively scanned video.

This Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) committee was established to address the new interoperability standards and to work with other standards bodies, such as the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA). CEMA has set up a committee to develop similar PC Theater standards, and will be using several VESA standards as building blocks for its standard. The goal of both organizations is to develop a compatible set of system-to-display interface standards. The object of the VESA PC-Theater Interconnectivity standard is to provide the necessary information to build a PC-Theater computer or display by culling all the required standards, providing any additional specification information required, and specifying the operation of each device.

A PC-Theater system comprises the PC and the large-screen display. The display is the same size as a typical TV and has the same functionality as a standard VGA monitor. In addition, the display may support enhancements for showing TV video. Optionally, it could offer all the functionality of a standalone TV, including the ability to display standard interlaced TV video.

The PC is a typical multimedia system with a fast microprocessor, DVD/CD-ROM drive, modem, TV tuner, USB, and audio-video subsystem capable of combining PC and TV audio and video. The PC also may support IEEE-1394 (Firewire). In addition, a set-top box could be substituted as the computing device.

The input devices must be wireless so users can control the system from the comfort of their sofas. A typical remote could be used for watching TV, while a second remote with a pointing device could be used for both PC and TV functions. A wireless keyboard is recommended for the PC functionality, and wireless gamepads and joysticks for playing video games.

Both the PC and display have connector panels with standard audio, S-video, and composite video jacks for connecting typical CE devices such as VCRs, DSS systems, DVD players, and audio systems. The PC Theater Interconnectivity Standard contains several key points. One connector will be defined to allow a single cable to carry all of the required signals between the PC and the display. Automatic configuration will eliminate most user intervention.

The display will be driven by the PC using standard analog or digital computer signals. The PC and display support two different viewing modes – one for displaying PC graphics, and the other for TV video. The PC and display will support USB software so the PC can control the display. In addition, all user input is passed to the PC for processing.

Auto Companies Motivate Employees With Television

Dealership personnel, corporate employees and factory workers are being encouraged to watch TV on the job. Programming, courtesy of the automakers, ranges from talk shows for service technicians to coverage of auto shows.

While most auto companies say they get along well without TV communications, a handful – the Big 3, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. and BMW of North America Inc. – rely on TV systems to inform dealers and train dealership sales and service employees, and to allow corporate employees to meet, all without people leaving their workplaces.

With the exception of BMW, it is the larger auto companies that have invested in TV communications. Several other auto companies say they have looked at the systems, but their operations are too small to merit the investment. Those companies opt for video conferencing, which uses telephone lines and monitors; rent satellite TV time a few times a year as needed; or use e-mail. (See story on Page 41.)

The systems cut down on travel expenses and time away from the dealership or the office. Another benefit is that the target audience gets information first hand, cutting down on the risk of the message getting mangled in the translation.

While TV will never take the place of actually being there, it is an excellent way to disseminate information when face-to-face communication is not really necessary, say program officials.

For instance, a BMW technical course that used to require five days out of the dealership, may now require only three days out of the dealership. Two days’ worth of training is offered on Visionwerke, BMW’s satellite TV system, said Joanne Irish, BMW new-technologies training manager.

IS ANYBODY THERE?

Except for training sessions, the manufacturers say it is hard to determine audience size. Most declined to say how much the systems cost or how much they and their dealers save as a result of having the systems.

“We don’t have a Nielsen rating system; people are not filling out diaries,” quipped Len Marsico, director of communications technology at General Motors.

Gary Vaughan, lease manager at Townsend Ford in Tuscaloosa, Ala., said Fordstar, Ford’s satellite system, is priceless. Townsend Ford retails about 300 new Fords a month.

Vaughan said the information that is broadcast often solves old problems and is a catalyst for new ideas. He said he often tapes shows and watches them at home while riding his exercise bike.

Chrysler Corp. suspended the six hours of programming per week on its Chrysler Dealer Network about 18 months ago, because people weren’t watching, said Mike Gonda, Chrysler manager of satellite communications.

The automaker found that in many instances, the dealership TV monitor was in a meeting room or break room, which was not conducive to training, Gonda said.

Currently, Chrysler airs programs to dealers as necessary to inform them about press conferences, dealer announcement shows, product recalls and sales incentives. Dealers are alerted to the shows via e-mail or fax.

The auto companies that have satellite or cable TV systems have their own studios and usually feature their own employees on the telecasts.

Saturn Corp.’s broadband cable TV feeds into 400 TV monitors in cafeterias, team centers and offices at its assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., said Mike Kramer, supervisor of the EDS/Saturn media center. The telecasts are not aired to dealers.

Saturn produces much of its own programming. The network also features news from local ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates. Saturn broadcasts to its factory employees 20 hours a day, six days a week.

Among Saturn’s offerings is “Window on Saturn” an upbeat, 15-to 20-minute show that focuses on the people who work at the plant. Kramer calls it “edu-tainment.”

FORDSTAR IS OUT FRONT

Ford Motor Co.’s Fordstar Dealer Communications Network is the most elaborate auto industry TV system.

The $100-million-plus interactive satellite TV system enables Ford to hold meetings and training sessions with its 5,014 Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealerships and dealership employees.

Lawrence Conley, Fordstar manager, said Ford began studying what is now Fordstar in 1993. Ford examined the satellite systems used by Chrysler and GM. Those systems, at the time, consisted of one-way video. Ford also explored fiber-optic technology.

“We said, ‘That’s not enough,'” Conley recalled.

Ford piloted the program with 56 U.S. and Canadian dealers in October 1994 and began its North American rollout in April 1995.

With the exception of a handful of Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers who are building new stores, Ford’s rollout in the United States and Canada is complete. About 160 dealers in Mexico also have the system.

Fordstar will be used as a model for Ford training operations in Europe and Asia Pacific.

Fordstar, BMW’s Visionwerke and GM’s satellite system are interactive and employ “distance learning.” Instructors are in one location and students participate from several locations. Students interact with the instructor by pressing a button on a keypad. Two-way microphones enable students and instructors to talk.

GM has satellite TV capabilities at 9,000 sites, including all its factories, dealerships, and corporate and zone offices.

GM program topics range from product knowledge and technical training to the quarterly financial results. The system also can target specific audiences.

While GM does use some professional talent, most of its programs feature its own employees.

“It makes more sense for experts who know the material to deliver it,” Marsico said.

slickBMW’S VISIONWERKE

Started in October 1996, BMW’s Visionwerke is the new kid on the TV block.

Virtually all BMW dealerships are connected to the system. The network debuted with about 20 hours of programming a week and is now up to about 35 to 40 hours a week, Irish said.

BMW’s programming includes “BMW News Magazine,” complete with an anchorperson; “Competitive Forum,” which compares BMW vehicles with their rivals; and “The Service Roundtable,” a monthly talk show for service technicians and engineers.

Also, BMW offers about 20 interactive sales and service training courses. Irish said the goal was to cut out-of-dealership training time by 25 percent by 1998.

“We’ve looked at our curriculum and decided which pieces can be on Visionwerke,” Irish said. “If we continue to grow at the rate we’re going, we will move to a second channel, possibly in 1998.”

BMW paid for the equipment; dealers pay a “modest” monthly fee, Irish said.

10 CHANNELS

What sets Fordstar apart from the competition is that it uses technology that allows Ford to broadcast different programs on 10 channels simultaneously.

Training in French and Spanish is broadcast to dealerships in Canada and Mexico.

Fordstar offers 112 courses. Its programming runs Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. EST.

The system has 15 studios. Among its innovative pieces of broadcast equipment is the Multimedia Instructional Podium, also known as the MIP Desk. This allows the instructor to operate the camera and sound equipment and act as director and producer. Ford has 16 MIP Desks.

Ford picked up the cost of installing Fordstar at dealerships. Dealers paid about $6,000 for hardware, which includes a personal computer, 27-inch TV monitor, a videocassette recorder, and a decoder that unscrambles the satellite transmission. Dealers’ monthly charges range from $320 for small dealers to $2,500 for large dealers.

“Our goal is to reduce time out of the dealership (for training) by 50 percent,” said Conley.

In 1994, the last year Ford conducted all its training in classrooms, 11,263 dealership employees took part in Ford’s top 10 courses, which range from light-truck selling to warranty administration. In 1996, while still installing Fordstar in about 2,000 dealerships, those same 10 courses accommodated 18,142 employees via Fordstar and 2,132 in classrooms.

In 1996, 124,510 dealership employees participated in some aspect of Fordstar. Ford expects to easily exceed those numbers in 1997. Through June, Ford already had reached 34 percent of its 76,000 dealership service personnel via Fordstar.

“The world and the competition is changing; we need to be faster,” Conley said.

Mother Teresa’s Death Was A Low Point For TV

The often lackadaisical coverage of Mother Teresa’s death, coming as it did in the middle of funeral preparations at Westminster, was remarkable even in an age noted for its celebrity worship. Tom Brokaw’s comment was but one example of many. Mark Harris wrote trenchantly (and accurately) in Entertainment Weekly (9/19), “…when news broke of Mother Teresa’s passing, all of television paused for the approximate length of a sigh before getting back on the gravy train.” On the day of Mother Teresa’s funeral, The New York Times featured a minuscule front-page story on the event above a much larger column announcing: “Diana’s Death Resonates Most Among Women in Therapy.” Oh.

mtThe striking contrasts between the coverage of the Princess and the saint were difficult to miss. Like many papers, The New York Times ran acres of worshipful articles about the Princess of Wales in the days leading up to her funeral. All well and good. But that same paper’s coverage of Mother Teresa’s life had an entirely different edge. Usually buried in the middle of the first section, articles about the Saint of the Gutters invariably mentioned her “sometimes controversial” teachings (presumably her pro-life stand, not the Gospels). Also inserted were snipings from one Indian journalist (whom The Times must have struggled mightily to find) that Mother Teresa had used the poor of Calcutta to–get this–advance her career. Somehow, though, Princess Diana’s death insulated her from this type of criticism. Even Diana’s friends would have admitted that she cannily used the media to her own advantage, though it was apparently deemed insensitive to mention this before her funeral.

The New York Times, in fact, continued its criticism of Mother Teresa even after her funeral. While other papers featured more positive coverage (“Mother of Poor Laid to Rest” read The Boston Globe’s one-inch headline) The Times stuck to its often snide tone. “Pomp Bars Poor From Mother Teresa’s Rites” was how the Times summarized her funeral on its front page, suggesting perhaps that Mother Teresa herself was responsible for barring the poor from the liturgy. Inside the paper one could read about crowds that were “sparse” and “smaller than expected.” (There was little mention of the hundreds of thousands who filed past her coffin in the motherhouse in the days before the funeral). There were a number of important diplomats, but “not as many as expected,” sniffed The Times.

The main difference in the coverage of Diana and Mother Teresa seemed to be that many felt obliged, in the case of Mother Teresa, to liven up their coverage with an abundance of criticism. This was, to put it mildly, far from the case with Diana. In short, while the Princess of Wales was laid to rest as a saint, Mother Teresa was exposed as a “complicated figure.” Does this strike anyone as somewhat backwards?

For their coverage of the liturgy in Calcutta, ABC News decided to supplement their experienced “color” commentators with Christopher Hitchens, author of an execrable book on Mother Teresa entitled The Missionary Position, which attacked her for consorting with dictators and other less-than perfect characters. (A certain carpenter from Nazareth, you will recall, was accused of similar crimes.) Mr. Hitchens also accused Mother Teresa of using the poor as a springboard for media attention. But Mr. Hitchens, with a book on Mother Teresa, a PBS documentary on Mother Teresa and articles on Mother Teresa in the Nation and Vanity Fair, seems quite content to use her as his own convenient springboard, even after her death. Mr. Hitchens’ efforts, however, are not assisting many poor people.

At times, it seemed, the story of the Saint of the Gutters was all but buried under an avalanche of media attention for Diana. On the other hand, some noted that Mother Teresa’s funeral itself might not have received as much attention as it did (live coverage, that is) had the news media not been so aware of their excesses with Diana. That is, they felt guilty. Indeed it seemed that the coverage of Mother Teresa’s passing consciously aped that of the Princess of Wales, providing for some odd moments. One anchorman noted with apparent approval that a new song had been written for Mother Teresa to accompany the tune of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” a la Princess Diana. It was called “Flame in the Gutter,” a considerably less felicitous title.

But perhaps the fine an of balancing the coverage in such an extraordinary week would tax even the most thoughtful of television executives. Too much for Diana? Too little for Mother Teresa? It’s difficult to say. And who knows if Mother Teresa herself might not have enjoyed the timing. Recently a friend remarked how upset she was that Mother Teresa had died so shortly after Diana. “What horrible timing!” she said, articulating the same reaction I had heard from a number of Catholics. “Now no one will notice!” But here, after all, was a woman who spent her life among the unnoticed, worked for decades in anonymity, shunned honors and said that she was “personally unworthy” of the Nobel Prize. So it was comforting to think that dying at a time that almost ensured she would receive as little attention as possible, while frustrating for her many admirers, might have pleased Mother Teresa immensely.