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Getting up to speed on the Internet Industry moving quickly to hasten online access

STRAPPED INTO the seat of his X-Wing fighter, my 17-year-old surveyed the pilots who were about to join him in a battle against the Imperial fleet.

His wingmen, unknown computer jockeys from around the country with names like Yoda and Wimper, showed up as bright green dots on the screen of Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone. There were other player-dots, yellow and red, but none in Ike's squadron.

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"Green is good," Ike said. "They're all low latency. It'll be a fast game."

"Yeah," I grunted. "That latency will get you every time. Mind explaining what it is?"

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As Ike dispatched an Imperial cruiser with a proton torpedo, he told me that latency is the amount of time it takes to get a signal from your computer to another player's machine and back. Generally, the faster your Internet connection, the lower the latency.

When a half-dozen rocket jocks are chasing each other around cyberspace, playing LucasArts' X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, there's a lot of data moving over the Net. So a high-latency player with a slow connection can drag down a whole game.

"I've got the lowest latency of anybody here," Ike boasted.

"I know," said I. "I'm paying for it."

Ike's latency is low because he's connected to the World Wide Web through Comcast Cablevision, which rolled high-speed Internet cable access into our neighborhood a couple of months ago.

Microsoft, whose Gaming Zone occupies a tiny corner of the Internet empire it ultimately wants to carve out, has a big stake in high-speed Internet access for home users. With demand for its traditional word processors, spreadsheets and other ho-hum business applications likely to level off during the next few years, the real opportunities for continued growth are online.

Microsoft makes operating systems for Internet providers. It makes tools for Internet programmers and a browser that millions of Web surfers use every day. Less than two years after it opened for business, the Microsoft Network has become the nation's third largest online service, behind America Online and CompuServe. Microsoft has joined with NBC to link traditional TV news to a World Wide Web delivery system, and the company has ambitions to extend its online content as far and as fast as it can.

That means extending the Internet from the desktop to the living room, where the average couch potato who doesn't know a modem from a megabyte can hop on.

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To that end, Microsoft announced in April that it would spend $425 million to buy WebTV, a company whose set-top boxes turn ordinary television sets into Web browsers.

The long-range success of all these ventures depends on the width of the data pipe into America's homes. It takes a lot of binary ones and zeros to produce the fancy graphics, video, audio and animation necessary to make the Internet a general entertainment medium.

Unfortunately, for most Americans, that pipe is a plain old telephone line, and it isn't wide enough.

As long as people are hooked up to the Internet with modems over regular phone lines at 28.8 kilobits per second -- or even at twice that speed with a new generation of equipment -- it's unlikely that the World Wide Web will turn mass market.

So Microsoft is betting big that the best way to pump more data into America's homes is through the country's cable TV networks.

On Wednesday, Microsoft announced that it was investing $1 billion in Comcast, the nation's fourth-largest cable company, which services 4.3 million TV households and a couple of thousand Internet users -- including me.

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Comcast has been pursuing the Internet market aggressively and is one of four major cable companies who joined forces to set upome, a high speed backbone network that provides Internet connectivity and content to local cable operators.

The problem is getting those local cable operators to upgrade their aging systems, which were designed for one-way communication and need billions of dollars worth of new equipment and fiber-optic lines to service the Internet.

Microsoft's infusion will help Comcast expand its Internet operations beyond initial efforts in the Baltimore suburbs and in Sarasota, Fla. That's good news for Internet enthusiasts, because Comcast's Internet service is phenomenal.

The deal is also likely to give the WebTV market a kick start. While the set-top boxes have generally received good reviews, their potential has been crippled by the use of dial-up Internet phone access. Hook a WebTV directly to the same high-speed cable that feeds your television and suddenly you're talking about real potential for interactive games, video and other goodies.

Nobody knows whether Microsoft's gamble will pay off, or whether it will encourage other cable outfits to get serious about upgrading their systems. But it's a good start.

Mike Himowitz can be reached by e-mail at mike.himowitaltsun.com.

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Pub Date: 6/15/97


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