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WebTV Plus missing Christmas

The next generation of set-top boxes designed by WebTV won't be generally available until after the holiday season, the company has admitted.

WebTV Plus, the next generation of set-top boxes designed by WebTV, won't be generally available until after the holiday season, the company has admitted.

The follow-up product, which allows consumers to view TV and Web content simultaneously, will not be fully released until next year. For the most part, the company will market the classic WebTV box, which has been out for over a year, as its holiday offering.

Moreover, it's unclear how WebTV Plus will fare in the marketplace. Demand remains relatively limited for TV/Internet technology and manufacturers are still trying to figure out the magic formula for marketing these devices to consumers, according to Jonathan Cassel, set-top box analyst with Dataquest.

"I'm not sure anyone wants to do Web surfing from their TV," he said.

Ironically, WebTV executives agree. Despite a recent increase in subscribers, WebTV remains a relatively difficult product to sell, said Phil Goldman, senior vice president and cofounder of WebTV. The company was purchased by Microsoft earlier this year.

"We thought we'd go crazy when WebTV came out," he said, "In fact, it takes a little bit of time to internalize. It's not the same as selling a new piece of software...We have to educate people on why they need this."

As a result, Goldman said his company is not at a disadvantage by leading during the Christmas season with the older WebTV box.

WebTV Plus is designed to improve the overall user experience of viewing the Internet across the TV, said Nikki Wiebe, a spokeswoman for the company. With current WebTV, users can either watch TV or surf the Internet--but not both simultaneously.

With WebTV Plus, users will be able to both watch programs as well as examine Web content. WebTV Plus will also support cable access as well as standard dial-up access with modems running up to 56 kbps.

Manufacturers of the WebTV include Sony.

WebTV Plus boxes are scheduled to sell for $299. Original WebTV boxes now sell for $99 after rebate; they debuted at $329. In addition, WebTV sells the connection to users, which costs $9.95 if the consumer uses his own Internet Service Provider, or $19.95 if all services come through WebTV.

Wiebe insisted that WebTV Plus is not delayed. Rather, she said it will only be released on a limited basis until after the first of the year. She then declined to define what a "limited" release might entail other than to say the product will be easier to get next year.

Goldman added that the company's "education" campaign has been adding subscribers. Currently, there are close to 200,000 subscribers, he said, while a million are expected over the next 13 months.