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WebTV launches into PC-TV market

WebTV announced a new TV set-top Net box and two big licensees, Sony and Philips.

WebTV Networks today elbowed its way to the front of the growing pack of Internet appliance makers, announcing endorsements from two key consumer electronics manufacturers Sony Electronics and Philips Electronics.

While considerable skepticism remains among some industry analysts about the appeal of non-PC Internet devices, WebTV's big-name supporters and technology may give it a leg up over other low-cost devices, such as Oracle's Network Computer and Apple Computer's Pippin, both aimed at the consumer marketplace.

"Having Sony and Philips is a necessary condition for [WebTV], but it's not a guarantee of success," said Adam Schoenfeld, vice president and senior analyst at Jupiter Communications. "I don't have a Philips screen phone yet. I'm very leery of the concept of non-PC information appliances. But if the devices are offered as a secondary device, they might find a market."

Like the NC and Pippin, WebTV is designed to give less technically adept consumers a cheaper, easier way to get access to the Web and email than hooking a PC to a television set. But the company hopes to distinguish itself from those devices by making WebTV even less like a computer and by getting well-known consumer brands to license and manufacture the devices based on the company's design.

"We really believe the trick making things very, very simple and easy to use," said Brian Boling, general manager at Philips, which will introduce its Magnavox WebTV in the fall. "With this group, there's a real consumer focus. If you look at Pippin, it's quite difficult to read [text]. "

Part of WebTV's design includes technology that sharpens the resolution of images and text on standard TV screens, a critical improvement over other devices that present fuzzy pictures of Web pages.

WebTV, which expects to license its hardware and software design to other manufacturers in the coming months, will also attempt to simplify the process of signing up with an Internet service provider through an automated registration process. The company will offer a subscription-based launch pad to the Web through its site, called the WebTV Network.

Sony and Philips today were evasive about the price of their devices, though representatives of the companies and industry analysts suggested that the price would be considerably below $500, the magic level established for Oracle's Network Computer that has become an industry-wide target.

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