WebTV to offer Internet access via television

California company WebTV Networks has announced technology to browse the Internet through a television set.

Angling to tap into the elusive but purportedly vast Internet consumer market, WebTV Networks has announced technology to browse the Internet through a television set.

WebTV Networks has partnered with Sony and Philips to sell TVs using WebTV's technology beginning in September, company officials say.

"We're bringing [the Internet] within the reach of the average person and the way we're doing it is through our old friend, the television," says Steve Perlman, head of Palo Alto, California-based WebTV.

The hardware and software technology lets users browse the Internet using a remote control device and send and receive email by clicking buttons on the screen, officials say. A keyboard is available but is not necessary, they say.

Hook-up is simple, according to Perlman. With the current unit, the user connects to a TV's video and audio inputs, plugs into a phone line, turns on the TV and presses the "on" button on the remote, he says. The machine can discern where it is located and automatically figure out what number to call to get Internet access, he says.

As the machine connects, the user doesn't hear phone dialing noises and weird modem squealing, Perlman says.

"This is a consumer product. You don't need to know how it's connecting, it just works," he says.

The companies won't comment on specific pricing, but observers cite the several-hundred dollar range as the likely price point.

"They recognise that below US$200 is much more acceptable than above US$200," says David Coursey, editor of Coursey.com, an industry newsletter based in San Mateo, California. "They understand the pricing issue -- it's not going to be outlandish."

The combination of ease of use and a likely low price could let WebTV tap into a broad, computerless US home market. "There are lots of households who own video games but not a computer," Coursey says. A US$200 price tag is in the video-game range, and WebTV could appeal to this market, he says.

Others agree. WebTV is "is another approach to the problem of the network computer, but for a different class of users", says Tim Sloane, an analyst at Aberdeen Group in Boston. "If the person making the buying decision knows what the hell NC means, they probably aren't going to be interested in WebTV."

The NC competes against the PC, but WebTV is targeted at those who aren't necessarily using any flavor of computer at all, he says. "That's the market and it's a valid, giant market," Sloane says.

WebTV is licensing to Sony and Philips its hardware and software, which runs on a 112MHz, 64-bit processor with a 33.6kbit/s modem, WebTV's Perlman says. In addition, the company will offer a subscription-based online service which acts as a browser, he says. Called the WebTV Network, the service will categorise and index the best Web sites for users who want assistance with accessing the Web, he says.

This kind of targeted, consumer-oriented service impresses Aberdeen Group's Sloane. "That's a value-add they offer though it doesn't preclude you going to any site you want" by typing in the address, he says.

Coursey agrees the company is potentially well-positioned for success. "This is not the second coming but they did solve a technical problem" in getting Web sites onto TV screens without the customary flicker, he says. "If you saw WebTV you'd think it was neat."

Contrary to some reports, because of WebTV's consumer-orientation and its lack of interactivity, the box is not really a network computer, analysts say. But if WebTV is not an NC, it nonetheless has some formidable peers who it must coexist with or die trying.

It uses a non-standard Web browser, and it remains to be seen how well it will do with implementing new multimedia technology such as Java, Sun's object-oriented, multimedia Internet programming language, according to Coursey.

According to WebTV officials, WebTV will announce support for Java and Shockwave, Macromedia's multimedia development software, sometime next year. In addition, they maintain that WebTV has few compatibility problems in looking at pages designed for Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator.

Getting and keeping up with the technological scene on the Internet could prove key for WebTV. The question is not just how does WebTV link to the multimedia that's currently being built into Web sites, but how will it expand to handle new Internet technologies, such as telephony, Coursey says.

"It is a time will tell play," but they have a good product and in Sony and Philips they have partners who know the consumer market, Coursey says.

WebTV is at http://www.webtv.com/.

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