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WebTV audio update pushed back to 2000

Common Internet audio features won't be available to WebTV users until next year, even though the Microsoft subsidiary previously announced they would arrive in 1999.

Common Internet audio features won't be available to WebTV users until next year, even though the Microsoft subsidiary previously announced they would arrive in 1999.

Although WebTV struck an agreement with RealNetworks several months ago to bring "streaming" audio to the TV set-top service, "technical difficulties" have held up those plans, company executives have acknowledged. The project remains on the horizon, the executives said.

WebTV provides limited Internet content and Web-enhanced television programming to about 900,000 subscribers. It was besieged with complaints earlier this year, because its service doesn't support RealNetworks' newer streaming media players and Sun Microsystems' Java. Both are popular Web technologies.

The term streaming refers to data that is being sent to a receiving device in real time.

In response, last July the company announced it would bring RealNetworks' G2 streaming media player to WebTV subscribers. Under the terms of the agreement, WebTV users were to gain access to streaming audio feeds from Web sites delivered by Real's G2 technology.

The deal was restricted to audio feeds; it did not include streaming video feeds, such as those used on some news and information Web sites.

WebTV executives originally argued that the design of the low-cost set-top box precluded adding costly memory and hardware necessary to support newer Web features. In addition, since its 1997 acquisition WebTV has refocused its strategy to concentrate on more "enhanced" television features, rather than simple Internet service. But the perception that Microsoft's ownership influenced the technologies available on WebTV were fueled by the fact that the company had been public about its intent to support leading Web technologies when it was independent.

A WebTV spokeswoman yesterday confirmed that users have been notified that the update has been delayed until the first part of 2000.

"In terms of G2 support, we are late," a spokeswoman said. "We had planned and hoped to get that out to subscribers by the end of the year, but the intricacies of adopting the technology to the TV browser format was more complex than we hoped."

The company reiterated its position that the technical constraints of the WebTV set-top box are to blame for the delay in supporting RealAudio. "Anytime you're taking Web technologies and adapting them to a television format, as well as adopting audio and video--it's complex," the spokeswoman said.

WebTV users were informed of the new delays via a newsgroup posting earlier this week. "We understand that customers are very excited about this new support, and we are working hard to get it to them as quickly as possible," the message read.

For WebTV, enhanced television programming is a more attractive business than providing Internet access for a couple of reasons. To begin with, such programming provides opportunities for additional advertising revenues. In addition, many Web sites have resisted reformatting their design for WebTV's TV-centric browser, which makes it difficult to tout the service as a superior means of access the Web.

As if to add to its woes, the company suffered severe email delays during this past weekend, further frustrating users who rely on the service.

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