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Soon, a computer in every television; Convergence: Electronics firms move to merge TV viewing with the Internet experience.


LAS VEGAS -- This year, television, computers and the Internet may finally merge at a home near you.

The result -- which companies plan to make available across the country as early as the spring -- is something that still looks and functions like TV. But by harnessing the power of computers to their set, consumers will be able to tailor TV more to their own tastes and needs.

At this month's International Consumer Electronics Show, the two largest U.S. providers of satellite TV announced plans to marry some elements of computers with their television services. Both say they'll put out a new generation of converter boxes in 1999 that will give consumers the ability to interact with programs and record them digitally.

Among the benefits promised are the ability to pause live broadcasts and resume watching a delayed version, call up plot summaries and other information about programs, order products as they are advertised and summon information from the Internet onto the TV.

The country's leading TV manufacturer, Thomson Consumer Electronics, also revealed its plan for building interactive TV sets with Microsoft Corp. by the end of 1999. And San Jose, Calif., start-up TeraCruz reported that three set manufacturers are adding its chips to their products, potentially turning even more sets into interactive TVs.

Consumers have heard similar promises before, including unfulfilled ones from two of the main players at Tuesday's announcements -- Microsoft and DirecTV, the country's leading small-dish satellite TV service. There is a key difference this time: The intense competition among cable, satellite and TV stations is boosting the companies' willingness to roll out new services. If the satellite companies plunge into these services, the cable companies are almost certain to follow.

Another important difference from the previous waves of computer-television "convergence" promises, analysts say, is in what consumers may be offered.

WebTV demonstrated that consumers weren't all that interested in browsing the World Wide Web on their TV, said analyst Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research. What Microsoft and other companies are focusing on now is enhancing the TV viewing experience with additional control and information, not replacing programs with Web sites.

In particular, Microsoft's WebTV and EchoStar, operator of The Dish Network, plan to offer consumers a $499 package that includes a satellite dish and set-top box combining three separate devices into one: a satellite receiver, a digital recorder and WebTV Plus, which allows you to connect to the Internet through your TV.

The digital recorder, like the devices developed by start-ups Replay Networks Inc. and TiVo Inc., would let viewers pause or rewind live programs with the touch of a button on their remote control. In versions available later in 1999, the box will be able to record up to eight hours of programs chosen by the viewer or by an electronic agent that learns the viewer's preferences.

The box's recording capacity also will be used to store games and other information, such as music or news, pulled from the Internet at ultra-high speed. With an extra $25 fee each month to Microsoft on top of the monthly fee to EchoStar for TV programs, the box also will be able to dial into the Internet to browse the Web or send electronic mail.

Another feature is the ability to display the supplemental information that networks are starting to encode within their programs -- text, graphics and video clips that viewers can use to customize programs.

DirecTV unveiled similar enhancements. It plans to add TiVo's technology to converter boxes made by Philips Electronics, due out late this year. No price has been set for the boxes or the TiVo service, which would be on top of the monthly fees for TV programs.

Before that, DirecTV plans to include interactive TV technology in converter boxes due out by July. That technology, made by Wink, lets viewers call up supplemental information and products for sale.

For example, viewers tuned to The Weather Channel could click on their remote control to display a forecast for their hometown or the city they're about to visit. Or, while watching an advertisement for the NFL, they could order a football jersey with a couple more clicks.

Unlike the full-blown Internet service from WebTV, the more limited Wink functions will be provided at no extra charge, Wink officials said.

The intense competition among cable, satellite and TV stations is boosting companies' willingness to roll out new services.

Pub Date: 01/18/99

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