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Prime time for Net TVs

New Net TV technologies get a push as TV makers use trade shows for a soapbox. Diba gets a different kind of push as Zenith partners with Oracle.

It's prime time for Net TVs.

Consumer electronics manufacturers are using trade shows in Las Vegas and San Francisco to hawk their wares and entice a broad consumer audience to wire their television sets to the Internet.

Zenith Electronics (ZE) today announced plans to use Oracle's Network Computer System software in its Internet-access TV products.

Zenith will unveil prototypes of its two consumer Internet devices at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The company demonstrated a set-top box to turn existing televisions into Net onramps, in addition to new television sets that come with Internet-access capability built in. Starting tomorrow, both prototypes will available for demos at Zenith's CES booth, according to Zenith spokesman John Taylor.

"This is a change in strategy," said Taylor. He said Zenith had originally planned only the integrated television product and has since decided to come out with a set-top box for existing televisions.

Both products will use Oracle's Network Computer software, according to Taylor. Today's joint announcement with Oracle marks the end of Zenith's relationship with Diba, the company that Zenith last year signed up to create software for the Net TVs.

The Glenview, Illinois-based Zenith had been scheduled to deliver its first Net TVs in November. When the devices were not ready for the holiday buying season, some observers suggested one factor may have been development snags at Diba.

Tom Sorensen, director of new technology at Zenith, said the company has axed the earlier product it had been developing with Diba in favor of the new Oracle and Navio initiatives.

"This marketplace is changing on a daily basis," Sorensen said. "As we looked at what we were developing, we didn't feel it was compelling enough to bring to market" he said of the company's earlier product plans with Diba.

"There is no plan to go forward with the Diba product at this time," Sorensen said. Yet, he added that Zenith continues to work with Diba.

Despite today's announcements, consumers will not find the products on store shelves anytime soon. Taylor said the both products will be ready by the second half of the year, with the set-top boxes likely to ship first. While exact pricing has not been set, the products will cost less than $500 to assure Zenith a competitive position in what it and other electronics makers hope will be a booming consumer market, Taylor said.

The company also today announced strategic relationship with Netscape Communications subsidiary Navio Communications. Navio, which sells a consumer version of the Netscape Navigator, will tailor its browser software for bundling with the Zenith hardware later this year.

The Navio deal will also bring Zenith customers new service offerings, Sorensen said. For instance, consumers will have a choice of Internet service providers. Zenith, which calls its initiative Netvision, will include additional Navio client software, news, and other content to serve up information to even the most novice Net consumer. He said e-commerce services may also be rolled out.

Meanwhile, WebTV Networks, which last fall was one of the first companies to market set-top technology, plans to show off its new Videoflash digital-compression technology at the CES show tomorrow at the Philips booth. Videoflash lets users download television-quality video over ordinary high-speed modems and display it on TV screens.

WebTV, a venture between Sony Electronics and Philips Consumer Electronics, is awaiting a patent on the Videoflash technology. The patent would incorporate the software, which is capable of decompressing video on a processor with as little as two megabytes of memory, at compression ratios three to ten times faster than the MPEG-1 industry standard.

The Videoflash software was developed by Peter Barrett, who designed Net multimedia CinePak, and Bruce Leak, who designed QuickTime. Videoflash will be deployed on the servers of the fifty-odd Internet service providers used by WebTV to deliver access nationwide. It will be made available to WebTV customers free of charge starting sometime in the second half of the year, a WebTV spokeswoman said.

While Videoflash is fast, it reportedly has a significant drawback: the technology has only enough power to send video images onto a quarter of the television screen. A full-screen download takes about three minutes to handle about 30 seconds of video.

The company, which envisions the technology for use in narrowly targeted advertising campaigns, news reports, and a range of other uses, is currently working with content providers to garner support.

WebTV introduced its first set-top boxes, capable of turning the average television into a Net device, last fall. Between 30,000 and 100,000 of the boxes, which retail for about $400 apiece, were reportedly sold during the busy Christmas buying season.

Thomson Consumer Electronics, which also has plans to trot out Net access boxes for TV sets this year under the RCA brand, today will announce plans to use Acorn Computer Group microchips in devices. Thomson has also committed to using Oracle software in the products.

Focus Enhancements (FCSE), a Sudbury, Massachusetts-based developer is also showcasing TV-based Internet products to crowds at both the CES show and Macworld today. The company said its WebTView device is "PC-to-TV conversion technology." The product taps the Net by channeling PC video output into TV video input and comes with a wireless keyboard for bridging TV and PC functions, the company said.

Focus said it will bring the PC-to-TV product to market in the second quarter of this year. No pricing has been announced.