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TV dropped for PC in energy trial

Microsoft, TCI, and PG&E pull the plug on a much-touted trial to monitor electrical usage via TVs and will turn to PCs instead.

It's the computer, stupid.

In a technology about-face, Microsoft (MSFT), Tele-Communications Incorporated (TCOMA), and Pacific Gas & Electric (PCG) are pulling the plug on a much-touted trial to monitor electrical usage via televisions and will turn to PCs instead, CNET learned today.

TCI will not participate in the new trial, however. The cable giant recently has pulled back forays into new consumer technologies, preferring to focus on its core cable TV business instead.

The three companies' so-called "energy information services" trial, started in 1994, was meant to let a couch potato switch to an "energy channel" from cable TV and monitor the home's energy usage and cost from a "smart box" that runs on Microsoft software. It was hampered by sluggish consumer demand and technological hurdles, though, participants said.

While the trial will end with no commercial product, Microsoft and PG&E, the nation's largest investor-owned utility, are not abandoning hope. This spring, they plan to launch a new trial to monitor energy use through PCs. The data will be carried over the Internet rather than a two-way cable channel system, one source said.

"It was clear the technology was migrating toward the Internet," said a source familiar with the plan. "This gives people more flexibility." For example, customers could monitor their electrical output from a PC at work, not just home, perhaps making it possible to turn up the heat before leaving the office.

Microsoft already is working on the software tools to make the system work.

The debate over whether to use the TV or PC to receive advanced communications remains a hot topic. TV supporters argue that the "tube" is suitable because many families already are familiar with the product and can now sit together to surf the Net with products such as WebTV. PC fans, whose apostles include Intel chief executive Andy Grove, among others, argue that the PC is better because of its speed, flexibility, and higher-quality resolution. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

The new trial is likely to be held in the San Francisco Bay Area. About 50 people in Walnut Creek, California, participated in the previous one, although it was supposed to have as many as 1,000 participants and spread to other cities in Silicon Valley. The companies also hoped to launch the service nationally.

TCI said it still will be able to use the results from the earlier trial in determining whether such a service may be feasible in the future. A company executive also reiterated today that TCI intends to provide high-speed Internet access through the @Home Network in concert with Comcast and Cox.

Similar projects are under way by electric utilities. For example, Boston Edison said last September that it hopes to let consumers monitor their energy consumption on the Net, while a partner--telecom provider C-Tec--provides phone, Net access, and cable TV services. It all could be bundled into a single bill, perhaps later this year.