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Tech Industry

Tower of Babel

There's a whole lot of hand-wringing going on in the PC-TV convergence space. But what if it's the PC that takes over the TV?

There's a whole lot of hand-wringing going on in the PC-TV convergence space.

This week, we reported on Compaq's plan to take yet another shot at getting into the family room. Earlier this month, it was Apple's turn to make a similar connection. The desperation of the PC guys is best exemplified by the comment Apple un-CEO Steve Jobs made at the National Association of Broadcasters' convention.

"We're dying to work with you guys. We can bring some architecture to this tower of Babel that's happening today," he told the crowd. To be sure, the TV folks were just as interested in hearing what Jobs had to offer. After all, they did invite him to be a keynote speaker.

Then there are all the other weeks where Microsoft has made some announcement or another related to convergence. If it isn't Windows 98 and its TV tuner feature, it's which digital format Microsoft is pushing--progressive scan vs. interlaced. Let's also not forget these other deals or impending deals: set-top box with TCI, cross-licensing with Sony, bandwidth with telcos, and so on.

What does this all mean? Beyond the obvious need for control, heck if I know. But the TV tuner in Windows 98 sure intrigues me. Microsoft is packing the tuner, Intel's Intercast, and WaveTop under the WebTV label. We are told that this is merely a branding thing, since not much of the WebTV technology itself is part of the package.

Maybe, just maybe, this is a Trojan horse.

As we know, Microsoft is having a hard time convincing the TCIs of the cable world why its products should be front and center in the living room. But what if it's the PC that takes over the TV?

The software giant is defending itself against antitrust regulators by claiming it should have the right to integrate its browser into Windows. It believes it should be allowed to integrate just about anything into Windows because in doing so, it's making computing easier for users. Microsoft could decide to apply the same philosophy to the PC-TV space.

Think about the company's oft-cited car analogy for bundling utilities or the browser into its OS--you know, how it made sense for GM to integrate radio products into its cars. Well, what if some business strategist is sitting in Redmond contemplating the same for this consumer convergence device?

According to this strategist, it would only stand to reason that if you bought a PC with Windows 98, why should you have to go to a separate vendor for a set-top box? Why shouldn't Microsoft just throw in the WebTV technology into the box as well? With flat panel displays becoming cheaper by the month, why shouldn't that PC replace the TV?

What about the bandwidth, you ask? Note that Microsoft's market capitalization is $226 billion; TCI's is about $15 billion. You think it would be too far-fetched to imagine that business strategist on Microsoft's campus crunching the numbers for a possible acquisition?

Just some food for thought.

Jai Singh is editor of NEWS.COM.