Though RCA is describing it as a network computer (NC), it is more akin to a set-top box, a device which is hooked up to an existing TV and endows it with certain computer capabilities.
The company unveiled two devices, the NC1020 and NC1010, designed for use with conventional televisions and based on technology from Oracle subsidiary Network Computer, Inc.
RCA's two "home network computers" are similar in concept to set-top boxes marketed by companies such a WebTV.
But by competing with vendors such as WebTV, RCA may be fighting for a piece of a very small pie, according to Debbie Coplin, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. While she sees RCA's chances as good as those of WebTV, she's not sure how good the industry is going to do as a whole. "At Christmas time, set-top boxes didn't sell that well," noted Coplin.
Coplin points to consumer confusion about the devices as one reason they're not selling briskly. "People don't understand what an NC or WebTV is." Nor is she sure that the underlying assumption that people want dirt-cheap, low-budget Internet access is valid. "There's an assumption that if it was cheap and easy to surf the Internet, everyone would do it. Something else is missing in selling these devices."
RCA's products provide basic Internet functionality such as electronic mail, viewing of the World Wide Web, and "chat"--the ability to hold message-based discussions on line.
The devices also add to the functionality of the TV they are connected to, allowing additional channel selection methods, personalization, and programming information. Users can also use the RCA set-top box to create custom lists of both TV channels and Internet "channels."
The RCA NC's Internet features will be supported using a standard home phone line, and service will be provided via RCA's partnership with NetChannel. The Online service will cost about $20 a month, and include five email accounts, chat, and web access. RCA has built a parental control system into the device, although how the system works remains unknown.
A built-in PC printer connection is also included, allowing users to connect most printers to the device without any other accessories.
The NC1020, which includes a wireless keyboard, will cost around $349 when available, and the NC1010, with a standard keyboard will cost $299.
Other TV manufacturers such as Zenith Electronics are also planning devices. Zenith plans to offer a family of Internet TV products including set-top boxes and integrated TV sets with interactive features based on NCI's software, the company has said.
Zenith's "NetVision" set-top boxes and TVs will feature a printer port and smart card reader for home shopping and banking. In addition to a built-in 33.6-kbps modem, the products will include an Ethernet port for connection to high-speed cable modems.