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Interactive TV, redux

What a difference a flop can make. New players are hyping ITV--and hedging their bets.

The hoopla generated by cable operators, telephone companies, and media conglomerates for their interactive television efforts a mere three years ago deemed the digital universe to be theirs to own and lose. "The future of television is at hand," said Edward Horowitz, then senior vice president of Viacom International in 1994. "We have the programming and we have the technology."

Ironic that at about the same time that Viacom's trial was under way with AT&T and that several other courageous companies were ramping up expensive, proprietary services, a piece of software called Mosaic was being widely distributed on an open network to basically deliver nothing fancier than text and still graphics. The inexpensive ability of a user with any computer running any operating system to browse any page soon overwhelmed the momentum of ITV, which was getting bogged down in the technical near-impossibility to reach homes with full-service networks on as broad a scale as the Internet. TV's 500-channel universe was also dwarfed by a World Wide Web of infinite channels.

If 1994 was about TV people trying to emulate PC interactivity, 1997 sounds like what happens when TV things happen to PC people. Software companies like Microsoft watched TCI, Time Warner, and Bell Atlantic take the lumps, only to take its own development efforts out of ITV for the online space. A Microsoft marketing plan in 1996 said "ITV is not dead but will naturally evolve out of current Internet technologies." The company's Tiger server architecture thus became Microsoft Media Server.

TV's new digital season
  Part une Part deux
Buzzword ITV Digital TV, in all its current iterations
Raison d'etre Watch movies Watch TV, surf the Web
Architecture Proprietary Open Internet
Cable, phone service, media, entertainment Hardware, software, online content and services
Planning cycle Years Months (digital TVs not available until late '98, early '99)
TCI/Bell Atlantic (merger plans abandoned) Microsoft/WebTV (no comment from Justice Dept.)
Delivery network Cable, phone lines Cable, phone lines, wireless
User device TV with set-top box PC, TV with Net-ready set-top box, digital TV
Interface Through remote Through keyboard, mouse, remote
Content Traditional video programming Web pages, streaming multimedia, online interactivity (forums, chats, email), "hybrid" programs

Indeed, the latest future for interactive television is not in the hands of highly leveraged corporations but in software and hardware firms from cutthroat Internet and technology sectors. The big names include Microsoft, Intel,, IBM, Compaq, Silicon Graphics, Hewlett-Packard, and others. Thanks to these new players, "digital TV" is a catchall term to describe a lot more than simply a better audio and video signal.

As seen by Microsoft's acquisition of WebTV Networks, PC- and Net-savvy companies may be ready to enter the market, but unlike those of "ITV part un," they are sure to hedge their bets. Other distinctions, as shown above, help outline what is making up "ITV part deux."