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Interactive TV: The big kludge

CNET's Charles Cooper says despite its spectacular record of disappointment, this remarkable sinkhole continues to excite breathless predictions. So, what gives?

Jakob Nielsen, who probably knows more about Web design than anybody else on planet Earth, came by not too long ago to catch us up on the state of the art. The good news: Yes, some good work is going on. The bad news: Most of what is being touted as user-friendly design these days comes straight out of the pages of Torquemada.

I was thinking about Jakob's decidedly downbeat assessment of what supposedly passes for people-friendly pages on the Internet after the news earlier this week that America Online had canned its joint production deal with TiVo to make an interactive TV box.

The fact that yet another ballyhooed attempt to marry the television and the personal computer was taking an unexpected detour into the ether was less surprising than the fact that it still commands such interest in serious quarters of the computer industry.

The graybeards in the audience might be excused for rolling their eyes whenever somebody mentions the promise of interactive television. Even proponents by now must acknowledge that this "nascent market" ranks as one of the biggest financial sinkholes since Boston's Big Dig.

This was supposed to be a huge deal. A 1999 report from Forrester Research predicted that interactive TV would rival the Internet as an advertising medium within three years. (Considering the lame state of Internet advertising three years later, I'm sure the author wishes he could take that one back!) The report went on to wax effusively about how vendors would fall all over themselves to reach viewers by offering a combination of dolled-up banner ads and information pages and buttons.

Somehow, subscribers in this country never got similarly excited--the picture's brighter in Britain, but that's a different story--much to the chagrin of technology strategists at AOL and Microsoft. Both behemoths saw interactive TV as a way to extend their technology into a very big corner of our lives. The AOL Anywhere strategy (remember that one?) was a particularly ambitious plan. That plan would feature AOL's services on pagers, handheld PCs, cell phones, as well as on Web appliances.

Technology is not the hang-up. Someday in the not-too-distant future, I'm sure everyone will

Imagine watching "Casablanca" with Bogie about to give Ingrid Bergman the big send-off, when your idiot frat brother decides to IM you because he wants company for the evening.
finally be able to tap into abundant and relatively inexpensive sources of broadband. The main sticking point remains more fundamental: The Web as a visual medium is just not in the same class as television.

That's why all the promises about the two-way communications nirvana heralded by the arrival of interactive services have so hollow a ring. If you're watching television, do you really want to do e-mail, instant messaging, and access the Internet at the same time?

Imagine watching "Casablanca." There's Bogie, trench coat and all, about to give Ingrid Bergman the big send-off, when your idiot frat brother decides to IM you that he wants company for the evening.

"Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but...(Hey dude, let's head for some suds!) doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people....(I got so wasted the other night)...don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." (CU There or B Square!!)

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The cable operators' inability to agree upon a set-top box standard or operating system haven't helped prospects for interactive TV. But even if they do clear the logjams, so what? Just because something's technically feasible doesn't

Just because something's technically feasible doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea.
necessarily mean it's a good idea. If I want to work on a file or surf the Internet, the PC is a wonderful device. If I want to catch Chris Matthews scream at his guests on CNBC, the television works just fine.

Lousy Web design on the small screen ported over to a TV monitor just means lousy Web design on a bigger, better screen. Period. Maybe people's habits will change as the widening hole in the ozone layer turns us into a race of hyperactive mutants who surf, e-mail, and pull up voluminous office files all the while sitting down in front of the boob tube.

Until then, the most interactive use of the television at Chez Cooper will be decidedly more one-dimensional--as in picking up the remote to click the off button.