Manufactured and marketed by Sony, Philips, and other consumer electronics companies, the so-called Internet appliances are designed to promote Microsoft's WebTV Internet service through the television. Recently, prices on WebTV set-top boxes have dropped dramatically, as low as $59, amid reports that Microsoft has been quietly reimbursing manufacturers for their losses on the products.
WebTV, now counting about 800,000 subscribers, was the first commercially available product fulfilling the much-hyped "convergence" between PC and television. The device has not supplanted the PC for first-time users looking to connect to the Internet, but analysts expect WebTV subscription numbers to jump exponentially this winter when Thomson begins shipping television sets with WebTV already installed.
The new Sony set-top boxes are basically refreshed versions of the original Classic and Plus Internet terminals, introduced in 1996. The new Classic includes a 56-kbps modem, rather than a slower 33-kbps device and a built-in printer port, and is significantly smaller in size than the previous model. The Classic, or INT-W150 Internet Terminal, as Sony is calling it, will retail for $99.
"WebTV brings the best of the Internet to consumers, easily and affordably," said Patricia Ruggieri, director of digital media marketing for Sony, in a statement.
The new Plus box, or INT-W250, includes new features such as WebPIP, which allows television viewers to simultaneously access Internet content while watching TV. The INT-W250 also supports smart cards which access specific Sony Internet content, the company said.
The INT-W250 will begin shipping this month for $199. The complementary WebTV service costs up to $25 per month.
The latest generation of WebTV set-top boxes, including those recently announced from Philips, are the first to support the latest streaming media technology from Microsoft rival Real Networks. Previous versions of the device were locked out from content created using the later versions of Real's streaming technology.