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They don't want their WebTV

Not long ago, the story goes, a bunch of uber-geeks at Big Blue decided to task their collective wits with this challenge: manipulate individual atoms so exactly that they could spell "IBM" with them.

Not long ago, the story goes, a bunch of uber-geeks at Big Blue decided to task their collective wits with this challenge: manipulate individual atoms so exactly that they could spell "IBM" with them.

They actually did it. But their feat raises an equally perplexing question: Why?

The old joke around Silicon Valley is that engineers love to invent really cool technologies first, then figure out if there's anything useful to be done with them later. I was reminded of this when I took my first extended spin on WebTV recently when visiting my in-laws in Oregon. They had neatly stored the box on a kitchen shelf where it was gathering a bit of dust.

First, a disclaimer: I actually like WebTV and would love to have one myself if only my wife didn't forbid it. She fears, rightly, that if I could surf the Web from my couch I'd never stop working. That might be true for Webaholics like me, but looking at it from the view of the newbie consumers whom the new Microsoft subsidiary is trying to attract (my parents), I'm not sure if the folks who make the Internet TV set-top box really understand how mom and dad think.

For example, after dialing in to the service--assuming that they get that far--mom and dad get a screen of stuff that may as well be written in Greek: little drawings marked "search," "favorites," and "home." Granted, these are words they've used before, but they certainly have no clue what they mean in the context of software and the Internet.

In all the talk about the potential billions upon billions of dollars to be had in this untapped portion of the general consumer market, it's amazing that companies like WebTV haven't figured out that they have to make things way, way simpler if they expect to reach the masses they so desperately crave.

When I worked at newspapers, every few years some new publisher or editor in chief would come back from a seminar and declare that all our problems would be solved if we held some "focus groups"--those painful-to-watch coffee klatches where innocent people are lured into a Q&A session for a few dollars and stale doughnuts to give their honest opinions about designated products.

After all our fretting over such things as fairness, accuracy, and the finer points of grammar, here are the kinds of things that would be said: "The ink rubs off on my hands." "Why are the articles so long?" "The box scores are too small on the baseball page."

As depressing as it often was to hear our lofty journalistic goals reduced to such complaints as a paper boy with bad aim, the message was as educational as it was humbling: You can have the greatest material in the world, but it doesn't mean a thing if your consumers don't want it.

It is a lesson that the evangelists of computer-television convergence should learn well, particularly as the stakes have never been higher. In 48 hours last week, Sun Microsystems bought set-top box maker Diba, and Microsoft won controversial approval from the Justice Department to go ahead with its buyout of WebTV despite persistent antitrust complaints.

Why are successful companies like Sun and Microsoft taking such a big gamble? Because whoever finds the path to the Holy Grail--the Internet newbie--stands to gain unimaginable wealth.

According to commonly cited industry figures, the home PC market has been frozen at 40 percent of the buying population. And, surveys have shown, the remaining 60 percent say they may never buy a computer.