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In the Square-off Between TV and Computer, The Smart Money Might Be on the Boob Tube : BOOK EXCERPT

October 29, 1995|Daniel Burstein and David Kline

Remember the discussion of 500-channel TV and a world of TV "channels" limited only by your imagination? Remember the magazine articles about how, in the comfort of our living rooms, we would soon all be able to direct our own customized TV coverage of football games, hold video conferences between children and grandparents in far-off cities and wander on our TV screens through the virtual aisles of Nordstrom's, Macy's and Safeway, clicking our remote controls at whatever we wanted to buy?

In 1993, a surprising number of experts were telling us that this wonderful world of interactive television would be here by the end of 1995. Obviously, if you've looked around your living room lately, the reality is that it isn't. In fact, it is still a long way off. Even Time Warner's fabled Full Service Network project outside Orlando, Fla.--the granddaddy of interactive tele-topias--has only wired a small fraction of the 4,000 test homes the company announced would be wired a year ago, and even those are receiving much more limited program selections--and with much more technical difficulty--than was once forecast.

The seeming failure of interactive television trials in test markets all over the country has given ammunition to those who always saw interactive TV as a never-never land anyway. Indeed, techno-utopians imagine that even plain old ordinary TV will die a fairly rapid death in the face of the new center of life in the Information Age: the PC, linked of course, to the Internet and the World Wide Web. "Toss out your TV, fire your secretary," declared the cover of Forbes recently. "The cyberspace revolution is getting serious."

Some observers, like technology writer George Gilder, author of "Life After Television", forecast a future in which the diverse entertainment choices offered to computer users via Internet-style networks will bring an end to Hollywood itself and mass entertainment as we know it. As a matter of fact, some believe this has already happened. "If you want an arbitrary date for the burial of the 500-channel dream, Aug. 9, 1995, will do just fine," intoned technology-watcher Steven Levy recently. That was the day that Netscape, the company that makes the leading Web-browsing software, went public. Its single-day leap from $28 a share to $75, according to Levy, showed how the action has shifted from the dream of clicking a remote at an interactive set-top box to the reality of surfing the World Wide Web via computer and modem.

For Levy and other influential gurus in the wired world, the "old future" was about interactive television that would allow you to sit on a couch and press a button to order "Dumb and Dumber." But the "new future" is about using a PC for "Web surfing, open systems and freedom." In fact, the most leading-edge theorists now see even PCs as dumb commodity boxes of little consequence. In the future, all intelligent life will live on the Web, we are told. In this techno-utopian way of looking at the world, broadcasters, cable TV firms and telephone companies are already in the tar pits for certain. Microsoft is scarcely less dinosauric than IBM. And all who don't immediately shift their strategy to the Web are condemned corporations.

As for why the wealthy and powerful in our society would be throwing their billions at deals like Disney's acquisition of ABC or Time Warner's acquisition of Turner, well, according to this view, they are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic of traditional media. And those who wonder exactly how a company like Netscape--brilliant as its software may be--will earn profits commensurate with the $2.5 billion market capitalization conferred upon it by the stock market in its first day of trading, are just asking antediluvian questions.

Let's be clear: There is no question but that the computer predominates in the world of business and in the professional lives of Americans. For serious, hard-core communications and information-oriented activities--whether undertaken in the office, in the home, at school or on the road--the metaphor of the computer connected to the 'Net is the right model. For a certain percentage of our society, the Web is indeed the embryonic royal road through cyberspace and the prototypal key to a whole new world of electronic commerce, communication and information services. The question is whether the PC and the 'Net will also come to predominate as the appliance of choice for entertainment and light information-gathering in American homes.

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