THE WINTER Consumer Electronics Show is always a glimpse of things to come, but the 1997 edition this month in Las Vegas seemed more like a masquerade ball. Computers dressed like television sets, TV sets donned Web browsers, phones were accessorized with screens and keyboards for sending e-mail, and intimate connections with mysterious outsiders were the norm. In the so-called digital convergence, do appliances or computers have more fun? Only your programmer knows for sure.
Screen phones were everywhere. Depending on the screen, the keyboard and the internal electronics, they can display everything from Caller ID to specialized information services, e-mail and even the World Wide Web. Like many other items on display, most are not quite ready for public consumption but should be available soon.
Some include surprises. A touch of the redial button on a phone in the press room instantly displayed the last eight numbers dialed by unsuspecting journalists, along with credit card information that would have been dynamite in less scrupulous hands.
After using my own phone card, the only way I could purge the information was to dial eight different local numbers before relinquishing the handset. Look for a telephone to be named a co-conspirator in a theft-of-services case someday.
Phones that can send users' images were not in abundance, perhaps because cheap systems are widely available for PCs. But 8x8 Inc., a recently renamed company specializing until now in chips, demonstrated its first consumer product, the ViaTV System, a box that promises to turn a TV set and standard phone line into a picture phone.
The pre-release demonstration did not belie the company's admission in its recent initial public offering filings that, given the data speed of plain telephone lines, "the human eye can detect degradation of video quality."
At least the unit should be easy to install, which is more than you can say about computer-based products. It should work with the many products that adhere to the new videoconferencing standard called H.324.
But will Grandma and Grandpa pay $500 per box plus phone tolls to see Junior babble in fuzzy, jerky glory?
TV screens can double as decent Web terminals, as the estimable WebTV set-top boxes from Sony and Philips Magnavox have shown. Now many other big-name companies will offer competing systems, including some built into TV sets.
Like WebTV, some new systems will tie customers to a single Internet service provider; others will allow more freedom of choice, but connecting printers and upgrading modems may remain problematic.
Not taking this threat lightly, computers will be designed to replace and even outdo mere TV sets. Microsoft Corp. and dozens of corporate partners announced plans for Entertainment 97 products with screens and an interface big enough to be watched at living-room distances.
DirecTV Inc. will offer bandwidth capable of broadcasting up to 30 megabits (a lot) per second to users who have the company's satellite dishes; cable customers may get data-only channels that can deliver roughly a third of that (still a lot). The broadcasts are, of course, one-way; e-mail and the rest of the Web will be available through conventional dial-up services.
Machines like this are not expected before Christmas, but dates do have a way of slipping.
Pub Date: 1/27/97