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NCI boosts Net TV prospects

Technology from the Oracle subsidary will allow users to simultaneously receive TV broadcasts and Internet access on the same screen.

Network Computer Incorporated, an Oracle subsidary, says it will deliver technology enabling users to link the Web on their TV screens, a longtime goal of set-top box makers that is expected to make Net access relatively painless.

The technology, dubbed "Enhanced TV," will allow users to essentially receive both television broadcasts and Internet access across the same screen at once, said Randy Brasche, marketing manager for NCI, the portable division of Oracle. With current set-top box technology, consumers have to turn off their TV sets before linking to the Web and vice versa. With Enhanced TV, users will be able to shrink the TV broadcast to a desired size in a corner of the screen and use the rest of the space for the Web. Users link to the Web by clicking the Enhanced TV URL.

Beyond convenience, the technology could provide the watershed moment for content providers by enticing more consumers to the Net, Brasche said. That is, by flashing a URL onto the screen, broadcasters will give couch potatoes both a relevant destination and a means to get there. "This will expand content linking and advertising," Brasche suggested.

Enhanced TV URLs will be carried on TV broadcasts in the same manner that closed captions are currently broadcast, he explained.

The project isn't quite complete, however. For it to work, TV broadcasters are going to have to coordinate with Internet service providers. No deals have been announced thus far, although discussions are ongoing. Still, Brasche said that Enhanced TV-enabled set-top boxes will start to roll out toward the end of the year and in quantity in early 1998.

Network computers--stripped-down boxes made for relatively simple uses like Web browsing--have been championed for years by Oracle chairman Larry Ellison as an inexpensive way to bring the Internet to the masses. Ellison showcased the set-top box several times last month but did not set a specific date for its introduction.

Next month, RCA and Zenith Electronics will release set-top boxes powered by Navio/NCI software, Brasche noted. The RCA Network Computer will cost $299 and come with a remote. A version with a keyboard will cost $349.

Hardware devices for Enhanced TV will follow in late 1997 and 1998. RCA is already working on such a device. Enhanced TV NCs will cost $300 to $500.

NCI competitor Microsoft, which recently bought WebTV Networks, is working on a similar project.

Costing $750 and below, NCs allow users to run applications and access the Web, but generally do not store information. As a result, NCs typically must work in conjunction with powerful back-end servers.

Although less versatile and less powerful than full-featured personal computers, the "connected" nature of an NC means that users with a smart card can log on to any terminal in the world and use their email. A number of analysts and NC boosters have predicted that the devices will lead to Internet kiosks becoming as common as public phones.

The roll-out of the product strategy comes as NCI formally closed on its purchase of a controlling interest in Navio. Navio was formerly a subsidiary of Netscape concentrating on Web software for small devices. It was spun to NCI in May.