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Memphis: TV guide on the PC?

If Microsoft has its way, PC users will soon cancel their subscriptions to TV Guide.

If Microsoft (MSFT) has its way, PC users will soon cancel their subscriptions to TV Guide.

Microsoft's follow-up to Windows 95, code-named Memphis, is being redesigned as an operating system and a TV tuner that enhances traditional boob-tube broadcasts with interactive Web pages and data. Part of those plans include a program guide that will combine listings of satellite fare and analog broadcasts plucked from a local cable system or a TV antenna.

"Whatever services you're signed up for, the shows will be there," said Memphis product manager Alec Saunders. "Memphis will present them all in a single unified tuning space."

The program guide, built from HTML pages, will hide all computer-like interface elements such as scrollbars and menus. It will be sent as part of the stream of data included in both analog TV signals and satellite signals. Once a user selects a program from the guide, the HTML page will use ActiveX to show the video at full-screen size, according to Saunders.

"What appears to be a television channel is in reality a Web page which is simply a container for the video control." So said a memo posted by Microsoft's George Moore to a private discussion group for Memphis beta users.

Microsoft hopes Memphis will encourage broadcasters to send data with their programming, such as extra statistics during a sports event or interactive polls that would appear alongside a show, but in a separate window. Viewers who don't want the added data can opt for a video-only, full-screen mode.

Memphis users will need tuner cards that plug into the back of PCs to receive TV signals. The analog-to-digital tuner card will connect to either the local cable system or a TV antenna. Another card will be necessary to receive satellite feeds. The cards should cost around $400, according to Saunders, and will include the necessary device drivers.

Data streams from satellite systems will push very high rates: DirecTV will devote 30 mbps to data, according to Moore's memo. The data rate will be much lower across traditional analog systems, which use the split-second black stripe at the bottom of the TV picture--known as the vertical blanking interval, or VBI--to transmit extra information. On current TV sets, the VBI is used to send closed-caption information and services like preview channels.

"Optimistically you can get an ISDN line's worth of data [with an analog broadcast]," said Saunders. "But for most purposes it'll be up to 28.8."

The entire question of data streams and interactive programming could become moot if users reject the TV show-Web information hybrid.

"Our concern is that Microsoft is doing too many PC-like things that are interfering with the TV experience," said industry analyst James Staten of research firm Dataquest. "It may be good for one guy sitting alone in his living room, but not good for social situations."

Making Memphis receptive to television is just one of Microsoft's incursions into the broadcast world. The software company recently bought WebTV Networks, makers of set-top box software that lets people surf the Web and use email on their television sets. Microsoft plans to tailor its handheld Windows CE operating system to set-top boxes and other non-PC devices, an effort Memphis parallels in the PC-TV convergence race.

"Because the market hasn't been thought out and no one's won yet, it makes sense to try several fronts and see what works," Staten said. "Microsoft doesn't care what you put in your living room to watch TV interactively, they just want to be involved."

Memphis's eventual ship date is still under wraps. A "widescale" beta program starts this quarter, with handpicked testers getting a copy. Industry observers are skeptical that the OS will be in users' hands by the end of the year, however.

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