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Digital TV's mixed signals

Digital television is many things to many people, yet the only thing that's assured at this point is that it will simply be bigger, wider, higher-resolution television with CD-quality sound.

Like the elephant surrounded by blind men, digital television is many things to many people. Is it an interactive multimedia playground? The solution to the Internet bandwidth problem? Web surfing on a TV screen? Couch potato heaven?

The only thing that's assured at this point is that digital TV will simply be bigger, wider, higher-resolution television with CD-quality sound. According to the promises of TV makers and broadcasters, this TV on steroids will be available in selected cities by the end of 1998. Anything else for the mass market--PCs that play TV shows, interactive shopping, chat rooms during Monday Night Football--is still speculation.

The basic idea is fairly simple. Existing television broadcasters will receive a separate channel over which to send digital programming. Because the transmission is digital, the signal, whether by air or by cable, will contain much more information than current analog signals. That could mean one high-resolution program at a time, or it could mean several normal-resolution programs on one channel, or extra stuff such as Web pages and multimedia files. A handful of stations across the country are already experimenting with digital transmission.

The Federal Communications Commission recently approved the technical standards for digital TV and encouraged broadcasters and TV manufacturers to be ready to give customers service by the end of 1998. In Japan, high-definition TV sets have been on the market since the late 1980s, but the broadcast system is still analog, according to Sony Electronics representatives.

Both consumer electronics and PC manufacturers--often the same company, such as Sony--are racing to provide users with hardware that can receive digital TV signals. Mandated by the FCC's December 26 decision, the digital TV technological standards include MPEG-2 video compression, Dolby AC-3 audio compression, and a digital transmission technology called vestigial sideband.

Video formatting issues, such as the proportions of the screen and scanning--how the screen draws an image--were left unstandardized to give consumers a voice in determining the market. The computer industry announced on Monday that it wants to standardize progressive scanning, the kind that computer monitors already use, a suggestion that a National Association of Broadcasters spokesman shot down last week.

"What you need is a bulletproof, low-overhead, low-maintenance system that any idiot can operate."
--Josh Bernoff,
Forrester Research

The devices that will receive digital TV signals could include pure televisions, TVs with set-top boxes that understand the Internet, or souped-up PCs. The range of devices means consumer choice, and miscalculation by manufacturers could be painful.

Staying with the status quo could be painful, too. The home PC market has stalled with about 35 percent of U.S. homes owning a computer. The TV market is stuffed to the gills, with household penetration higher than 95 percent since the late 1980s, which translates into stagnant sales growth. Both industries are looking to digital television to expand their market.

On the PC side, Intel and PC makers are scrambling to remake the old Windows box as an "Entertainment PC" to appeal to the mainstream consumer market.

"Intel knows that every nerd who wants a PC has a PC," said Jim Turley, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report. "They can either roll over and play dead or change the idea of what a PC is. They've started to move Pentium forward, but they've also been tinkering with other parts of the PC to make it better for video. Every little paving stone on this road is designed to make a PC a reasonably capable TV."

Will Pentium-powered TVs fly? Turley is skeptical of what he calls an initiative driven by computer industry egos rather than consumer needs.

Early returns don't indicate a groundswell of desire for convergence boxes, be they WebTVs or PC-TVs such as Gateway 2000's Destination. Whether it's a TV that surfs or a PC for couch potatoes, it's unclear what consumers will choose.

"I think we'll see various niches," said Sony Electronics vice president Rick Clancy. "WebTV fits into one of them. Even within digital TV, there can be various levels of service, including better-quality high-definition TV. It's not clear if there's going to be a dominant choice."

Sharper focus may be the only benefit of digital TV for awhile.
What services consumers eventually want (see related story) will determine which boxes sell. If everyone simply wants better television, the "Entertainment PC" is in trouble. The more interactive and computing-intensive a consumer's video desires, the more likely he or she is buy to PC with rabbit ears.

As recent entrants into the home PC market, Sony and other consumer electronics makers will push hardware convergence from both sides.

"Any efforts to graft PC applications to the TV or vice versa are foolhardy," said Rob Agee, digital television analyst at research firm Cowles/Simba Information. "They need to be recognized as unique media."

Agee points to Intercast, a system that allows PCs to tune in special broadcasts via a cable hookup, as a prime example: "Intercast is a case of them throwing enough stuff against the wall so that something eventually sticks."

If manufacturers on either side want to sell boxes beyond the high-end, home theater zealot, they'll have to be cheap. That means little or no memory, no expensive chips, a minimum of inputs and controls, and on the software side, no Windows, according to one analyst.

"What you need is a bulletproof, low-overhead, low-maintenance system that any idiot can operate," said Josh Bernoff, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "No one is insulted by making it easier, and Windows is not sufficiently simple for television."

Managing editor Mike Yamamoto contributed to this report.