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Compaq aiming at digital TVs

The PC maker is trying to stake out a place in upcoming digital television broadcasting and may be aiming at the $300 device market.

LAS VEGAS--At this year's meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters, Compaq Computer (CPQ) is trying to stake out a place in upcoming digital television broadcasting--meaning that it will eventually find itself competing against consumer electronics giants such as Sony Electronics.

At the annual convention here, Compaq is showing how its computer technology can create a digital signal for transmission to a PC, as evidence of how the television will become more PC-like. A Compaq executive also spoke of future TV devices costing as little as $300.

At the show, a Compaq workstation is being demonstrated which translates a digital signal for presentation on a Panasonic 42-inch flat-panel display in a format known as 480p, which consists of 480 lines of resolution scanned one after another onto the screen. The scheme creates greater detail than today's TVs.

On the eve of this year's event, CNET's NEWS.COM spoke with Bob Stearns, Compaq's senior vice president of technology and corporate development, who is responsible for mapping out the company?s involvement in new technologies and partnerships. As such, he has been heavily involved in Compaq's efforts to persuade broadcasters that digital television and the computer industry's progressive scan technology is preferable to the older interlaced technology used by today's televisions.

"We think that very shortly, as the world goes from analog to digital television, a lot of the 'convergence' that we've been talking about is going to mean that what is a TV is is more PC-like than anything that has come before it," said Stearns. Convergence is industry parlance for the increasingly similarity of TV and PC technology.

With digital television comes the possibility of merging interactive material that is computer-derived (such as Web pages) "to personalize the experience of TV," Stearns believes. "If that is the case, we need a video display format that is not hostile to computer graphics and fonts," he said, referring to the debate over interlaced versus progressive scan display technology.

Recently, some broadcasters have announced support for the formats favored by the computer industry. ABC Television and Fox Broadcasting are set to begin broadcasting in the progressive scan format, and NBC is talking about the possibility of selected broadcasts.

These decisions mean that broadcasters such as ABC could begin using the PC standard to send a combination of video, audio, and data for interactive services like shopping to PCs and other computer-like information appliances.

While the format may be contentious, it's certain that TVs will need significant processing power to understand the various formats that broadcasters will use. While the digital TV will consist of a microprocessor, memory and a display, Stearns said that does not mean that Compaq expects "people to sit in front of a keyboard and a small screen and boot up their television."

Future devices for viewing digital TV programming will be an "information appliance" based on the innards of a typical PC and costing about $300. But they won't take the form of a standalone PC with a separate keyboard, Stearns thinks.

Inevitably, he said, this will eventually place Compaq in competition with the traditional consumer electronics companies.

In fact, Compaq has already experimented in the market for convergence devices with a short-lived PC-TV product. Compaq sold a PC with a large 36-inch monitor but the device was too expensive and Compaq didn't sell very many before ending the experiment in January.

Stearns said Compaq learned that there are three discrete markets for digital television: the traditional PC, the "amalgam" PC-TV, and the TV appliance market, where the only interface device is the remote control. This last is the most important market of all, he observed.

Is Compaq developing such a device? Stearns would only say "We don't comment on roadmaps."

Don't expect Compaq to be left by the side of the road, though. The other giants in the computer industry, Microsoft and Intel, are looking at information appliances as the next big market to conquer, too.

The duo are now stating that digital televisions will not necessarily be PCs but advanced TV set-top devices. In December of last year, Intel held a major technology briefing spelling out its set-top computer strategy, which is based around low-cost derivatives of the Pentium II processor and related chip technology. Microsoft has also been aiming its Windows CE operating system at TV set-top boxes as the technology platform for the convergence of television and computing.