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Digital Nation

Will Interactive Internet Television Turn Into a Two-Headed Monster?

March 22, 2001|GARY CHAPMAN gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu

It should come as no surprise that the Internet is headed to a very familiar technology: your television.

The idea of merging TV and the Web typically has been greeted with scorn, skepticism and disbelief among heavy Internet users. Critics of the concept have pointed out that the Internet is a "lean-forward" technology of active engagement, whereas TV is a "lean-back" technology of passive absorption.

However, market studies have shown that at least one in four Internet users watches TV while online, and companies are keen on catching the interest of these "multi-taskers." There are also new kinds of content on the Web that might be better suited to TV than to the PC monitor, and at least one of these innovative, interactive Web TV systems is Linux-based.

But plainly, some of these new Internet-based interactive TVs are not likely to convert critics.

For example, Microsoft's WebTV--a set-top box and subscription service that allow limited Web and e-mail access on a TV screen--is being replaced by the company's new UltimateTV platform. And giant AOL Time Warner is rolling out AOLTV at the same time. Both of these services will feature Internet access on TV as well as the features found in products such as TiVo or ReplayTV, which let TV viewers record programs on a hard drive or stop and replay live TV broadcasts. Both UltimateTV and AOLTV also will provide unique content to subscribers, a step toward both services becoming new, national TV networks.

But AOLTV and UltimateTV still have the constraints that hard-core Internet users disdain: the low resolution of current TV screens, which makes Web pages look cartoonish and often unreadable; the "dumbed-down" look and feel of services oriented to people who feel intimidated by a personal computer; and the overwhelming sense that interactive TV is aimed primarily at vacuuming users' wallets.

Among longtime Internet users there is a widespread contempt for commercial TV and its "lowest-common-denominator" marketing and programming, and thus irritation that the Internet might be pulled in this direction by the likes of Microsoft and AOL.

There are some emerging alternatives for interactive, Internet-based TV that might appeal even to the critics. A company in Santa Ana called Ch.1 (http://www.ch1.com) is working with TV set producers such as Princeton Graphics and Sylvania to hook high-definition, digital TVs directly to the Internet. The Ch.1 system, which is both the hardware inside a digital TV and a subscription service, allows full access to the Internet through any Internet Service Provider, even high-speed cable and DSL services, and the high-definition sets display Web pages and e-mail the same way they appear on computer screens.

The Ch.1 TV sets offered now run a modified version of the open source operating system, Linux. Ch.1 is using Linux in the hope it will lure designers to write applications for example to transfer data to Palms and other hand-held computers, and embedding certain kinds of video and audio formats in the system.

"We don't see our product as a replacement to the PC but as a supplement to it," says Rey Roque, vice president of Ch.1. Today, there's a lot of content emerging on the Web that can be viewed or heard, such as streaming video, Internet radio, MP3 music, weather maps, sports scores, online games, large graphics such as photographs and Flash animations. All of these things become more accessible with a fast broadband connection to the Internet.

The Web site Yack.com (http://www.yack.com), for example, lists hundreds of live and recorded Web events in video or audio formats, everything from talking pundits at the Cato Institute in Washington to an interview with a Belgian dominatrix. There's every reason to believe that people will watch a wide variety of Web content online through their TV sets, sharing the experience with others.

There also are growing opportunities for creating audio and video content for others to see. Apple Computer's user-friendly (and free) iMovie software is being used by thousands of people to create quick and interesting video files. The Independent Media Center, whose Los Angeles branch was created during the Democratic Convention last year, allows people to post video and audio files (under 100 megabytes) on the Web for free (http://la.indymedia.org).

It's obvious that a battle is shaping up about whether the Internet will quickly become dominated by giant companies that will mimic the programming and advertising models of TV today, or an explosion of creative and diverse content gradually will replace mass-market programming. Whichever model wins will have an immense effect on society for years to come.

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Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas.

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