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Curtis Mathes turns to Net TVs

In a move to remake itself into a high-tech company, Curtis Mathes is showing off large-screen TVs with built-in Internet and telephony capabilities.

In a move to remake itself into a high-tech company, Curtis Mathes (CRTM), one of the oldest names in the television set business, is showing off large-screen TVs with built-in Internet and telephony capabilities at Spring Comdex, its first appearance at this computer industry trade show.

Currently, most Web access devices are taking the form of set-top boxes such as WebTV and the new reference design from Zilog (ZLG). In May, Curtis Mathes introduced its own television Internet access box to compete with market leader WebTV.

The company is now demoing its uniView line of Internet TVs, including a 36-inch unit and a 55-inch rear projection screen, both with email and Internet browsing capabilities. The televisions also offer full-duplex speakerphone, fax capability, and a built-in smart card or credit card reader for e-commerce applications.

"We've exited the commodity television business. We want to stay in the market where we are introducing new technology into consumer-level products," said Patrick Custer, chairman of Curtis Mathes.

The new 36-inch TV in particular bears some resemblance to Compaq's recently introduced PC Theater or Gateway 2000's Destination PC-TV.

But Curtis Mathes sees its new product as an Internet TV, rather than a PC-TV. The difference, according to company executives, is critical to selling the product to a larger number of people who want to get online but don't want the complexity of a PC.

"We are going after the TV market. To target that market, you could start with a PC and add television functions, but I wanted to design the product so people would use it every night," Custer said, adding that Curtis started with a TV and made the rest of its functions accommodate television users, not PC users.

For instance, the 33.6-kbps modem is software-upgradable to future standards, he said. The graphical interface and operating system, which was developed by Curtis, can be updated without user intervention. Television program listings are downloaded automatically to users and can be searched by program theme or name.

To support these functions, Curtis Mathes operates as its own service provider, meaning that, at least initially, users will have to hook up with the company by paying a $19.99 monthly fee for Internet access and programming information, much like WebTV users do. While flexibility in choosing providers is not available, Custer noted that because the company owns its own frame relay network, that communications are completely secure. Curtis is even set up to complete financial transactions initiated at one of its TVs with Visa, he said.

The 36-inch model will be available soon for around $1,995, according to the company. Pricing for the 55-inch projection unit has not been decided yet; availability is slated for September of this year.

In other news, NEC Home Electronics of Japan introduced an Internet TV of its own today, a report in the online edition of Nikkei Business Publications said.

The 28-inch TV has a 64-bit VR4300 RISC processor operating at 100 MHz for Internet browsing. The television also includes a 1GB hard disk drive and software that can retrieve Web pages for offline browsing. Browser software is being supplied by Navio Communications.

The report said NEC expects to ship 10,000 units of the Internet TV set in Japan this year. The televisions are being sold for $2,569.