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Intercast dying of neglect

Intercast, an attempt to fuse TVs and PCs, appears to be languishing because of lack of interest from PC makers and a failure to introduce programming.

    Intercast, once one of the most-promising projects to fuse the Internet and personal computers with television, appears to be languishing because of lack of interest from major PC manufacturers and a failure to introduce programming.

    The technology, developed by Intel (INTC), was billed last year as the perfect marriage of television and the Internet for PCs, expected to be offered last fall. But some technologies have a harder time finding a market than others, as Intel and its Intercast colleagues are finding out.

    Intercast is a technology that allows a user to watch a television program in one window of a PC monitor while simultaneously browsing through Internet content created to supplement the broadcast in a separate window. For example, the Summer Olympics broadcast in Atlanta was accompanied by statistics and biographies about the participants.

    But while the technology does put both TV and Web pages on your PC, a number of hurdles have limited Intercast's widespread adoption.

    A look at how it works shows why. Intercast technology allows broadcasters to send out formatted Web pages and other information across a portion of a broadcast signal known as the vertical blanking interval. Content is created by the broadcasters, sent to local affiliates, and rebroadcast into homes by a transmission tower or local cable companies. A card in the user's PC takes the signal and runs the broadcast.

    But for Intercast to catch on in a big way, all these elements need to be in place. This has not happened yet because there are relatively few users with Intercast cards and relatively few broadcasts that support Intercast. Moreover, local broadcasters often need to be on board to execute the broadcast, which is not always the case.

    The major roadblock is computer manufacturers. Few systems have shipped with Intercast cards. Intel says there are more manufacturers and new content providers on the horizon for 1997 but can't reveal specific plans. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

    "We need more content. We have a better understanding now of what the audience wants. Those are lessons I'm glad we learned. By the second half this year, there will be double or triple the amount of content," said Mike Richmond, business unit manager for broadcast products at Intel.

    "I think momentum is there, but it's not visible cause it's down the food chain," he said, referring to announcements from PC circuit board suppliers last year. Intel expects much more momentum to build in 1997. "We've been in the market for only 6 to 7 months, and that's not very long."

    A source at a broadcasting company said that IBM and Packard Bell were supposed to ship systems last fall. Yet those systems didn't materialize.

    CompUSA offered a Compaq Presario model in Atlanta for a limited time that offered a card bundled with the system, but Compaq has yet to offer its own system with Intercast included. A small New York-based company has been offering Intercast cards and systems, but the impact on the overall market has been slight.

    Compaq says it still has plans to include Intercast cards with systems sometime in 1997 but declined to elaborate on its plans. Two third-party vendors ship Intercast cards for use in PCI-bus systems with Pentium processors.

    The only major manufacturer that currently sells a system with an Intercast card is AST. "We think its a really good first step to interactive visual communications and real-time information on your PC," says Holly Cronin, a product manager for AST. "What needs to happen is get more [content] partners out there so users get more signals. The general public needs to start to learn more about it and ask for it."

    A number of broadcasters are creating content for Intercast, including NBC, QVC, CNN, and WGBH Boston.

    In July last year, Viacom's MTV said it would broadcast Intercast programming but has not yet done so. A spokesperson said content such as tour dates, information on artists, and polls would be offered soon, but the program is still in the testing phase.

    NBC, for one, currently creates special pages for its Homicide and Dateline shows, as well as sporting events such as the NBA All-Star game. Yet Intercast viewers still depend on the local station affiliate and often their cable provider to carry and retransmit the signal.

    In the San Francisco and San Jose areas of Northern California, home to numerous high-tech ventures and Internet content providers, Intercast isn't offered. And where it's available through a local affiliate, the signal isn't always carried by the cable company.

    When a cable company does offer the signal, it don't always carry each content provider. In Los Angeles, for instance, 10 of 11 cable companies servicing the various outlying areas carry Intercast signals, but only 4 of 10 carry NBC, CNN, CNN Headline News, and QVC. Taken together, the number of steps involved in the process of getting Intercast into homes each present a substantial obstacle for the adoption of the technology.

    When will Intercast make its presence felt in the PC-TV convergence? According to Cronin, "Intercast is still in its infancy, but I do believe it's going to grow because it's a compelling new technology that has a benefit." She estimates that there will be stronger sales of PCs equipped with Intercast by Christmas 1997 as manufacturers introduce their new lineups for the holiday shopping season.