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WebTV upgrades Net service

WebTV adds an electronic programming guide, printing capabilities, and secure online transactions to its service.

WebTV Networks is upgrading its Internet service by adding an electronic programming guide, print features, and secure online transactions.

The start-up, whose $425 million purchase by Microsoft (MSFT) is awaiting regulatory approval, also will let subscribers pick their own ISP.

The free upgrade, handled entirely in software so subscribers don't have to take their set-top boxes to a dealer, will be available by the end of the month.

Until the upgrade, WebTV subscribers had to use an Internet access service designated by WebTV, which had a master contract with Concentric Networks and other providers. Choosing their own ISP will allow customers who already have Internet access for a PC to use the same provider.

By adding new capabilities, the upgrade could boost WebTV's efforts to lure independent developers to create content and services for WebTV users, a critical step in its long-term viability. Also, by letting users pick their own ISP, the move may help undermine claims by rivals such as Oracle's Network Computer Incorporated and Navio that WebTV's system is proprietary, not open. (Navio is being merged with NCI as Oracle recently bought Netscape Communications' major equity stake in Navio.)

WebTV will bill customers who use a different ISP $9.95 per month, rather than the standard $19.95 per month, but those users must pay their own ISP too.

WebTV claims more than 85,000 subscribers, and it said 67 percent of those connect to the Internet daily.

The electronic TV guide will be customized to the subscriber's area by provider TV Guide Online.

The new printing features--for email, photos, news stories, and Web pages--use printers in Hewlett-Packard's 400 and 600 series and require a parallel printer cable and a print adapter from Sony or Philips Electronics, which manufacture and market WebTV set-tops. Those adapters will be available next month.

As previously reported by CNET'S NEWS.COM, WebTV built secure shopping and home banking capabilities, using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption, with tools from Terisa Systems. The new capabilities will let WebTV users pay bills, transfer funds, and check account balances at Wells Fargo Bank and other institutions.

The upgrade will allow users to download interactive animation quickly through support for Macromedia Flash technology. The upgrade also will enhance or add support for HTML 3.2, JavaScript, frames, Real Audio 3.0, ShockWave Audio, QuickTime Audio, streaming-MPEG Audio, and MIDI-Karaoke.