Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Ergonomics of WebTV

Set-top clutter or media streamlining?

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

October 17, 1996 -- Consumer electronics fans are [Image]
all abuzz about WebTV, the new set-top box that
hooks up to your TV and lets you cruise the web. While
last week's poll showed that etowners said "no big whoop"
to this new technology, it is a dramatic step toward
making the internet a truly mass medium.

Yes, WebTV is innovative, but technobrats like us don't
have much use for it. We've already got computers.
There's enough junk hooked up to the TV as it is.
Besides, if you're going to add a gazillion websites to
the many choices we've already got with TV, cable and
satellite broadcasts, how do you decide who gets the
remote?

It's easy to pooh-pooh WebTV, but as the cheapest on-ramp
to the much-hyped information superhighway, it's a big
breakthrough for people who can't afford a computer
system. Until now, the internet's reliance on the
computer as its only vehicle has been widening the gap
between the haves and the have-nots. Rich folks got to
check out services, job leads and a slew of on-line
magazines while others were left wishing and wondering
about those cryptic www addresses that snuck into TV ads,
billboards and magazines.

At $329, plus $69 for optional keyboard, WebTV is a much
more affordable way to get on the net than a web-worthy
computer system. Considering the number of manufacturers
competing for the Internet-TV market (through set-top
boxes, gaming system cartridges and TVs with built-in
web-browsing capabilities), we're likely to see these
prices get even lower, making the Internet a more
democratic medium.

"But you can't compare WebTV to a computer," you say. As
one etowner put it, it's one-fifth the price for
one-fifth the capabilities. Very true, but add to this
equation that WebTV is much less intimidating and you can
see why it's enticing to people who have no interest in
any computer function other than getting onto the net.
The remote control makes it easy to browse, and you can
switch from the net to a TV show with the touch of a
button.

Some other plusses: it's basically plug-n-play, logging
on takes less than a minute, the image looks good on a TV
set and it offers e-mail for up to five users. The
LineShare feature lets your call-waiting come through
while you're on-line and remembers where you were on the
web when you resume. There's a front slot for the
addition of a SmartCard that will let you insert your
credit card when you want to make purchases through the
internet. And a little blinking light tells you when you
have e-mail messages, just like your answering machine.

Bringing the internet to the family TV will inevitably
create new conflicts since televised broadcasts today
will wait for no one. Almost every household has had to
create a solution to the TV power struggle, an unspoken
agreement about the amount of time any one person gets
control of the remote. But what happens now when your kid
looks up to you with puppy eyes right smack in the middle
of the best Yankee game of the season and says, "I have a
homework assignment to look up the US Patent Office on
the Internet. May I use the TV?" If WebTV takes off, we
just might see a surge in the divorce rate right around
Super Bowl Sunday.

Potential conflicts aside, it's clear that WebTV is
likely to be a big hit, especially with the holiday
season approaching. For under four hundred bucks you can
give someone you love a warm welcome into cyberspace.
It's a sweet gesture, but it's also a good idea to
consider the fact that the $20 monthly fee can turn your
generosity into the gift that keeps taking.

What's that website doing in my living room?

Whether we like it or not, the internet is bridging its
way from computers to television sets, which will soon be
available with web browsing ability as an added internal
feature. There's a certain logic to this. After all,
isn't the web just a primitive version of interactive TV
with still graphics yearning for animation, abbreviated
sound bytes and an eruption of text? Web designers are
already racing to fill our desires for eye candy by using
moving image technologies like Java and Shockwave to make
web pages come to life. Before we know it, websites may
turn into television programs you can talk to. Most major
television networks already have websites that offer
programming information. And NBC has shown its commitment
to the convergence of media by offering Intellicast
Broadcasting which allows you to get interactive with
your favorite TV shows through the use of an add-on board
in your computer. Now, "Homicide" fans can play an
on-line whodunit to solve a crime along with the TV show.

My guess is that after some moments in the living room
spotlight, WebTV will get relegated to secondary
television sets in dens, kids rooms and home offices. For
users not fortunate enough to have an additional TV, I
suggest this: try creating a detailed scheduling plan
surrounding shows and including ESTs (estimated surfing
times). Considering the amount of TV programming
available, this can be such a daunting task that it's
best managed through an effective spreadsheet program.
Any decent computer will do for handling one of these.
Hey! Wait a minute! We do need our computers for the web
after all!

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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