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WebTV users want features

A survey indicates that users want Java, Real Audio, and other features. But WebTV won't come through any time soon.

WebTV users want support for Java, Real Audio, and a host of multimedia Web standards, according to a recent survey of its subscribers.

But WebTV is not likely to add those features any time soon.

A poll taken on behalf of WebTV found that customers cited Java and Real Audio as the top two technologies they want. The Microsoft subsidiary, however, says it will not support these technologies in the near future. In fact, WebTV has already quietly scrapped plans to support Java.

The rift between what customers want and what the company delivers is a sign of the growing-pains that consumer technology providers such as WebTV will likely endure in the future.

WebTV provides consumers with Web access and limited computing features such as email through an inexpensive set-top box. The target customers are first-time Net surfers and non-computer owners. WebTV says that to sell the systems for less than $200, it must sacrifice some of the bells and whistles offered by personal computers.

Some WebTV subscribers and industry analysts say that WebTV, since Microsoft acquired it more than a year ago, has dropped support of non-Microsoft technologies like Java and Real Audio 5.0.

Microsoft is locked in a legal dispute with Sun over Java. Real Audio, meanwhile, comes from RealNetworks, which accuses Microsoft of tweaking Windows to ensure that its own competing video viewer works better than Real Audio.

WebTV strongly dismisses the theory that the company is selecting technology to appease Microsoft. WebTV, the company points out, doesn't even support all of Microsoft's Web standards.

The poll results come from ClubWebTV, a WebTV customer service group. When asked, "Which Internet feature would you most like to see added to WebTV?" almost 70 percent of subscribers listed support for some type of multimedia Web standard. Java support topped the wish list, getting 27 percent of the vote. Real Audio 5.0, the latest version of the media player, came in second, with 18 percent.

"I've been a subscriber since nearly day one," survey participant Rodger Mansfield said in an email interview. "I have, and still do, highly recommend WebTV as a great tool for people who want a nearly idiot-proof appliance for email and Web browsing. [But] WebTV needs to continue supporting Web standards, especially Java and RealAudio. WebTV is not just a television-driven medium of uneducated viewers...Failing to provide current WebTV users [with] standard software will be the death of WebTV," he wrote.

WebTV says the survey was purely for entertainment purposes, and is not statistically relevant because respondents were able to vote more than once. Nevertheless, WebTV's internal marketing research indicates that support for multimedia standards ranks high among WebTV user demands.

WebTV insists that its data indicate that only 14 percent to 16 percent of respondents listed either Java or Real Audio 5.0 by name. But officials admit that multimedia features in general placed high on the list. Exact figures were not immediately available from WebTV, but clearly, subscribers are interested in the most robust Web viewing applications available.

"As an active WebTV Plus user, I'm the first to say that it's great technology," said David R., via email. "I'm also the first to say that in my opinion, the Microsoft buyout also tabled many alliances which could have made WebTV a great product, instead of merely a good one."

Steve Perlman, co-founder and president of WebTV, bristles at the notion that his company's technology decisions are influenced Microsoft. "We are a subsidiary of Microsoft for a specific reason: They do want us to operate with a degree of independence from the mother ship," he said. He added that WebTV has nothing to gain by not supporting industry standards.

"There's no advantage to us not being compatible with these things?Our half a million subscribers is not enough to make a difference in terms of whether a standard becomes popular," he said.

Perlman notes that there is Microsoft-developed Web content that WebTV users cannot access, including Microsoft's Start portal and Web pages featuring Microsoft's ActiveX technology.

"I'll take the blame for us not having enough resources to get this done," he said, noting that WebTV is looking to fill about 100 open engineering positions. "But it's unfair to say we're favoring Microsoft. We try to do the best job that we can, and we're not being influenced by Microsoft one way or another."