I Want My WebTV

Turn on, tune in, surf the Web. That could suffice as the entire printed manual for the new consumer information appliance, WebTV.While mountains of industry hype has surrounded undelivered technology such as cable modems and satellite Internet delivery systems, WebTV has quietly appeared in retail outlets around the country at Christmas, offering an elegant and inexpensive alternative that really makes sense.WebTV is a set-top box that plugs into your TV. It's so darn simple: just plug in a phone line and even your grandma can be cruising the Web in fifteen minutes.What's in the box? Basically, it's a fast 33.6 Kbps modem, a fast 120 MHz RISC processor and a few megabytes of memory.But who cares, really? Certainly not WebTV's target audience. This product is aimed squarely at the nontechnical among us, the vast majority who have trouble just setting the time on their VCR. These aren't folks who upgrade their microwaves to version 2.5b2. They aren't going to buy a computer and learn to use one, but they do want to cruise the web and send emailto family and friends. They just want something that works and they're tired of feeling left out.And in some ways, WebTV offers a real improvement over other methods of accessing the Internet. No more waiting for your computer to boot Windows95, dial your Internet service provider, then load Netscape and a dozen plugins. Plus no configuration hassles getting everything to work together. It's truly plug and play, not plug and pray. WebTV is easier to get up and running than a VCR and it eliminates the problems of software upgrades. Whenever the software is updated or enhanced it is downloaded automatically to your box in the background.The idea of displaying computer output on a regular television set might sound like a losing proposition. It certainly was in the old days of the early Atari computers. WebTV, however, utilizes sophisticated image compression and enhancement technology and what you see on the screen is truly enjoyable to view. Text displays clearly and sharply enough for emailmessages to be readable from the couch across the room and web pages display remarkably well in comparison to what you would see on a traditional computer monitor.Navigation with the remote control is also a pleasure. Since you don't have a mouse to click on web page links, you use the remote to move up, down, left and right highlighting links on a page and press the "go" button to activate a highlighted link. There are also buttons that allow you to scroll up and down. There is no provision, however, for horizontal scrolling. Usually, though, only poorly designed web pages require this capability anyway.Each WebTV system comes with up to five emailaddresses for use by different members of a household. Each can have a separate password if desired and, additionally, SurfWatch screening software is included for those wishing to block out those Triple X sites from the impressionable surfers.Since WebTV has no disk drive, your emailis stored on a remote server which comes in handy if you ever have the power go out while using the system. According to Mark Klosowski, a WebTV representative, the system allows you to store up to 150 messages or two megabytes worth of messages, and the system displays a warning upon your reaching 80% capacity advising you to start thinking about removing old messages.Some interesting scenarios made possible by WebTV include being able to view an online TV guide on the web then switch directly to a program you've just located. Or you could immediately visit a web site whose address was just displayed on television or send an Emailto a sponsor or politician. Some TV programs, particularly sports programs, also now provide expanded content on the web that corresponds to their regular broadcast programming; you could switch to the web during a commercial break to find out more about a player's stats, for instance.And have you ever wished you could tape a record of your web adventures? Well that, too, is possible. Just run WebTV through your VCR and hit record and later you can relive those wasted hours to your heart's content. This could actually be helpful if you were doing research for a homework project or something similar.Whenever you want an immediate update of current news, weather, or sports, it's only a click away. Sites like these can be stored in easily maintained bookmark files and revisited whenever you want. And the recent addition of RealAudio capability lets you turn your television set into a long distance radio and listen to broadcasts of sporting or music events as well as a raft of talk oriented programming. You can also find a wealth of alternative music on the web that your local radio station hasn't even heard of yet.WebTV probably won't appeal as much to the dedicated computer hobbyist who's already online. There's currently no way to download or save files and there is no support yet for Java, JavaScript or ActiveX applications. There also is currently no way to connect a printer but that should be remedied shortly. For its intended audience, though, WebTV seems like technology done right.A recent survey by Yankelovich Partners, Inc. seems to show that consumers without Internet access would prefer to surf the web by television almost two to one. Expect WebTV or similar technology to catch on in the near future. And with its acceptance, look for changes in the demographics of Internet users as the ranks of Netizens swells with couch potatoes.WebTV is a bundled product and service. Both Sony and Phillips-Magnavox manufacture the boxes, which cost around $320 and come with a wireless remote control for navigation. An optional wireless keyboard goes for about $70 or you can use an inexpensive traditional 6-pin wired keyboard. You probably should get a keyboard of some kind or you will be typing all your emailon a cumbersome on-screen keyboard that resembles a Ouija board.You subscribe to WebTV, based in Palo Alto, CA for a monthly subscription fee of $19.95 for unlimited Internet access. WebTV claims to provide access to 90 percent of the residents of the continental US through partnerships with several national Internet service providers including Concentric Network and IDT.You can find more about WebTV at www.webtv.net.


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