Questioning Technology: WebTV

In the most aggressive move yet to bring Internet access to non-computer users, Sony and Philips have teamed with three top former Apple Computer engineers to launch WebTV, the world's first TV-based online service. If successful, the venture will allow cheap and easy Net access from any TV set without a personal computer.Slated for a fall launch, WebTV will use digital set-top boxes built by Sony and Philips, the electronics manufacturers. The boxes will be sold in electronics stores for a few hundred dollars. When hooked to a phone line and TV set, the box, its inventors claim, will offer dramatically easier and more reliable Internet access than even today's best PCs.Founded last year by three Apple veterans now in their early 30s, WebTV Networks has been secretly developing its Internet TV capabilities under the fictitious business name Artemis Research in the garage of a former automobile dealership in Palo Alto, CA.The key players behind breakthrough technology are Steve Perlman, designer of much of the underlying video, graphics and multimedia technology in the Macintosh computer; Bruce Leak, creator of Apple's 32-bit Color Quickdraw and industry-standard Quicktime multimedia software; and Phil Goldman creator of Multifinder, the heart of the Macintosh operating system.WebTV claims it will do what no company has done before: bring simplicity to surfing the Internet. With a single click of the power button on the remote control, the set-top box automatically finds a phone number, configures itself and connects to the Internet. The process is so simple, the company claimed, that non-technical users can install the equipment, register with the WebTV online service and begin exploring the Internet within 15 minutes.WebTV has been designed, its creators say, to naturally translate material designed for computer display to the entertainment television platform. Web pages are processed through special hardware and software for display on television sets. This new processing technology, the company said, makes the Internet browsing experience faster and more reliable than current browsing on today's IBM-compatible and Macintosh computers."Until now the Internet was available only to those with computers and the skills to operate those systems," said Perlman. "By creating a genuinely affordable, easy-to-use product that leverages the television set and the telephone line found in virtually every household, WebTV makes web surfing a natural extension of the TV viewing experience."Viewing computer data on a standard TV set is usually a disappointing experience. Because of TV's interlaced scanning method, text and graphics lack detail and are hard to read. However, in public demonstrations, WebTV displayed sharp and flicker-free images of web pages on standard television receivers. This is the result, the company said, of a new technology called "TVLens" that eliminates interlace flicker without blurring. The process is said to improve perceptual image quality, making text more readable a few feet from the TV screen.Other WebTV features that add television-like characteristics to web information are a complete 16 million color palette; transparency (which enables text and images to appear translucent when they are superimposed on another image); and the use of dissolves, wipes and cross-fades as transitions between images.User interactivity is through a thumb-operated remote control or optional wireless keyboard. The set-top box comes with an internal 33.6 Kbps V.34bis modem augmented with a new technology that allows incoming calls when WebTV is used on a call-waiting-equipped phone. In addition, each set-top box is equipped with a 1.8 gigabit per second data port that will allow connection with much faster cable TV modems when that service is available.Although WebTV complies with current Internet standards, it is designed to absorb changes as the Internet evolves. Every time a set-top box connects to the WebTV network, it checks for software updates. When enhancements are released, the box automatically updates itself by storing the new data in flash ROM memory.Though WebTV's technology allows unrestricted Net surfing without a costly personal computer, the new set-top box is clearly designed to tap into the Internet's flashier entertainment side. In addition to digital video and CD-quality audio capability, the box has a special "Smart Card" slot in the front. You guessed it! This will allow instant purchases over the Internet using special versions of Visa, Mastercard and ATM bank cards.

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