Microsoft seeks advice on WebTV brand clash

Microsoft New Zealand has asked its corporate headquarters for advice after being told that both a trademark and an Internet domain name relating to its WebTV brand have already been registered in this country. Microsoft plans to bring WebTV to territories outside the US at some point, after it has ported the client side of the system to the Windows CE OS. But New Zealand company Ellcon applied to register the trademark Web-TV on September 16, in conjunction with the launch of its own set-top Internet terminal, the Ellcon Web. And Internet consultant Bruce Simpson registered the domain webtv.co.nz back in May.

Microsoft New Zealand has asked its corporate headquarters for advice after being told that both a trademark and an Internet domain name relating to its WebTV brand have already been registered in this country.

In June, Microsoft paid $US425 million in cash and stocks to buy out the US company WebTV Networks, having earlier taken a minority stake. The company acts as an Internet service provider for owners of the TV-compatible Internet terminals it has licensed Sony and Philips to build and market. It has designed software to reformat HTML pages at a special proxy server, which are then delivered to the boxes in a format which has some proprietary elements.

Microsoft plans to bring WebTV to territories outside the US at some point, after it has ported the client side of the system to the Windows CE OS. But New Zealand company Ellcon applied to register the trademark Web-TV on September 16, in conjunction with the launch of its own set-top Internet terminal, the Ellcon Web. And Internet consultant Bruce Simpson registered the domain webtv.co.nz back in May.

Neither of the nameholders wished to comment when contacted by Computerworld, but Microsoft’s options would include ignoring the names, offering to buy them or taking legal action. Ellcon’s trademark —which differs from the registered WebTV trademark in the use of a hyphen — is currently in the mandatory three-month examination period at the Patent Office.

The WebTV acqusition is widely regarded as being, along with Microsoft’s $US1 billion stake in cable TV company Comcast and the purchase of interests in the three leading video streaming companies, part of a strategy to move its Windows business beyond the PC market. But the world of consumer electronics may be messy for a company long used to controlling its industry.

Sony and Philips retained their hardware licences after the acquisition, and Philips will presumably continue to license its boxes for sale by FutureNet Online, a multi-level marketing organisation which claims to sell more units of the Philips Maganvox WebTV terminal in the US than all retail outlets put together.

Futurenet’s Web site includes New Zealand and Australia on a list of countries to which it is “coming soon”, but the company’s international marketing director, Dean Perkins, says there is no projected date for a New Zealand launch yet. Indeed, Futurenet may give up on the WebTV terminal altogether, because an en-cryption technology built into it makes it difficult to export from the US.

Instead, Perkins says his company is more likely to enter non-US markets —beginning with the UK, Germany, Canada and Mexico — touting a terminal based on the NC reference design created by Acorn Computer for Oracle, which licenses it to OEMs.

Philips New Zealand spokesman Francis File says the Magnavox will not be sold in New Zealand, but the company has longer-term plans to come in with a more “PC-based” TV terminal.

Oracle’s regional director of network computing, Len Augustine, admits that although the Oracle NC was born in a TV form factor (as the Acorn NetStation, which is still selling slowly in Europe), the corporate version had progressed fast. Acer, however, is about to start manufacturing a set-top version.

Oracle has just begun to pitch the Enhanced TV software developed by its NCI affiliate to local content providers, says Augustine. “I guess our role is to interest telcos and ISPs in running a service, and in interesting content organisations in creating content for that environment.” Enhanced TV includes animation, a scripting technology called PopTV, which can be authored in Macromedia Director, and it also provides for the delivery of Internet content through TV broadcast via VBI (vertical blanking interval).

Microsoft has similar technologies, but, says Augustine: “the major difference is that the protocol between the client and server in WebTV is slightly proprietary, whereas if you look at Enhanced TV from NCI and Navio, it is a straight Internet standard. It’s an HTML environment, but there’s a lot of technology built into the client to make it look good — skin tones, adjusting the size to fit TV resolution and so on. That’s all done on the client side and there’s enough processing power in the set-top units being built to do that.”

In the end, the market may turn on the choices of companies such as Xtra. Xtra spokesperson Robyn Bern says there have already been presentations from “a number of companies — we’re having discussions with a couple — working on the specifics of the New Zealand market to see what products would sell here and in what numbers.”

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