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Set-top box challenges WebTV

Curtis Mathes says its new set-top box is better than a WebTV.

Curtis Mathes (CRTM) today introduced a new television Internet access box to compete with market leader WebTV.

This box, the company promises, is better. Not only does it provide you access to the Internet from your television, it also allows you to talk on the telephone and pick up comprehensive programming guides--without ever having to leave your seat.

In other words, UniView, as the $399 box is named, is aimed at the ultimate couch potato.

While Curtis Mathes executives were feeling optimistic about the launch into this new venture, the markets' response was less than enthusiastic. At 3 p.m. ET, Curtis Mathes stock was trading down nearly 2 percent.

While WebTV, recently acquired by Microsoft, was greeted with great enthusiasm, sales have not been overwhelming. A recent Forrester report predicted that consumers would be slow to adapt to Internet television devices.

But Curtis Mathes clearly feels that its gamble will pay off. Spokesman Michael Ares said the proof will be in the sales. "This is a big deal for the company," he said. "It's a gamble, yes. It has to be proven out."

He said the fact that the WebTV has not taken off does not prove that people don't want this type of device, just that WebTV was the wrong one.

"We believe the WebTV is the wrong product for this marketplace and that's why it hasn't taken off." He added that as television makers, Curtis Mathes designed a product aimed at television viewers--not computer users--who had an interest in accessing the Net.

Curtis Mathes is aiming its product at a consumer who wouldn't want to buy a computer but is curious enough about the Web to shell out several hundred dollars. "These are people who would be the last people to buy a computer. That happens to be most people in the United States," Eres said.

Eres said the company took the couch potato ethos to an extreme, with access not only to the Net and email but also the telephone. In fact, some testers said they'd buy the set just for its telephone capability, which surprised the company.

Eres' explanation for that: People who would buy the set, don't want to get up.