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Set-top box for PC users debuts

NewCom is aiming its WebPal at users who already have computers and want to add more memory or change their network connections.

NewCom unveiled today at PC Expo a new kind of set-top box aimed at experienced PC users.

NewCom's competitor WebTV hopes to sell to people who don't already have computers. The company has decided on a 'sealed-case' design that allows for minimal user intervention along with an easy-to-use, proprietary operating system and Web browser.

But NewCom is aiming its WebPal at consumers who already have a computer and would like the ability to expand and modify their set-top hardware. By doing so, the company risks alienating novice users, but information appliances like NewCom's WebPal and the WebTV show there are different ways to address the consumer audience for Net access.

The WebPal features an industry-standard expansion slot to allow the analog modem to be upgraded to faster speeds or even to ISDN, ADSL, or cable modems. It can be connected to a wide number of Internet service providers or can be hooked up to a LAN with an Ethernet card installed. This could make the device attractive for hotels, schools and other institutions that want to offer Internet access through a low-cost machine. External storage can be added as well.

The device comes with a Web browser, email software, and an operating system developed specifically for the WebPal. The software can be upgraded over a modem, and the system memory can also be expanded to handle additional operating system features, the company says.

The company will ship a model with a 33.6-kbps modem later this month for under $400, and expects to ship a model with a 56-kbps modem based on U.S Robotics' x2 technology later this summer for under $500. A keyboard is optional.

Fears about system obsolescence and the limited number of Web sites that can be sen with the device are limiting the popularity of set-top Internet access devices, according to a number of recent market research surveys. Jupiter Communications predicts that it will take until the year 2002 for TV-based access devices to earn real market share--that is, 12.7 million households, or 22 percent of the consumer online market, using Net TVs.