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TCI Goes With Microsoft on Interactive TV : Technology: The cable giant will field-test a system later this year. The companies hope to launch it commercially by 1996.


Microsoft Corp. won a major endorsement of its approach to interactive television Thursday when cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. announced that it has chosen the software firm's system for field tests beginning later this year. The two companies said they hope to have a fully functioning commercial system running by 1996.

The announcement came just a week after the planned merger of TCI and Bell Atlantic Corp. collapsed, a development characterized by the parties involved as slowing progress toward an infrastructure of two-way communications networks capable of providing services such as movies on demand.

The TCI test, which begins in the fourth quarter of this year, will initially be limited to a few hundred TCI and Microsoft employees in Seattle. The tests will be expanded next year to include a larger base of TCI customers in Seattle and Denver and to test-market services.

"We hope to play a leading role in (setting) the standard," said Craig Mundie, vice president of Microsoft's Advanced Consumer Technology group. "It will be as in personal computers: At first there will be many offerings, but after a short period the market will focus on a subset."

Although Microsoft has been criticized for being late in getting into the game, the company says recent developments support its more cautious approach.

Time Warner Inc. said Wednesday that its planned launch of an interactive network in Orlando, Fla., is being delayed by several months because of problems with equipment suppliers.

It is still far from clear how much consumer interest there is in the capabilities that interactive television can offer. Microsoft executives have suggested, for example, that the system might enable sports fans to pull up statistics on any player in the middle of a baseball game.

TCI's decision could have a big impact on the market for "video servers," systems that store and deliver movies to customers. Analysts say the market could be worth as much as $5 billion by 1997. While companies such as American Telegraph & Telephone, Oracle and IBM are working on video-server systems that use large, powerful computers, Microsoft's system, based on its NT Windows operating system, takes advantage of cheaper personal computer technology.

TCI is involved in an interactive services trial in Littleton, Colo., with AT&T and US West. Since that trial is aimed at testing demand rather than the technology itself, it uses a bank of videotape recorders operated by humans rather than computers.

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