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Interactive Television: Where's the Beef?

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Contributed by Adam Barr
January 11, 2001

The 'bigness' of the television has been a thorn in the side of computer makers for many years.

In This Story:

Gateway to Nowhere

This is Progress?

PC Leisurefication

TV Dos and Don'ts

A little while ago, our three-year-old daughter wanted to watch a Disney sing-along. Since we have Disney products both on CD-ROM and video, it was understandable when she got a little confused and headed for the computer.

Luckily, our five-year-old son was there to redirect her. As he explained, "You have to watch videos on the television! The computer isn't big! The television is big!"

The "bigness" of the television, and in particular the coveted place it occupies in the minds of architects who design family rooms, has been a thorn in the side of computer makers for many years.

Remember the Gateway Destination PC? It was a PC with a TV tuner and wireless keyboard, coupled with a large, black monitor that looked remarkably like a television. As one review put it, "If Gateway's vision is accurate, within a few years many family rooms, conference rooms, and classrooms will combine computing, telecommunications, and television in one large-screen system."

Gateway's vision proved to be wildly inaccurate, and the Destination quickly went the way of the dinosaurs.

Gateway to Nowhere

The PC industry has continued its attempts to dislodge the television, and has for a while adopted a strategy of, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," focusing on the set-top box as the Trojan horse that will get the industry into that coveted spot in the built-in bookshelf.

While the PC folks have been massing their forces inside the little box on top of the television, they have been gazing nervously at the floor in front of the television, where the game console manufacturers have been making noise about things like Web browsers, digital cameras, and various other gadgets.

Who will win this battle? Judging by what the PC folks are saying about interactive television, I'm betting on none of the above.

This is Progress?

When you talk about "the PC industry," Microsoft is one of the key players. On page 277 of Microsoft's recently published self-hagiography, "Microsoft Inside Out," there is a list of "Ten Things You'll Be Able to Do From Your TV in the Future."

The list is: time shifting, chat, e-commerce, time shifting, chat, chat, time shifting, Web browsing, e-commerce, and playing games against other couch potatoes ("time shifting" means watching programs when you want, as opposed to when the networks schedule them).

Great. The finest minds of a generation have managed to come up with the same ideas everyone has been trumpeting for 10 years. An article in issue 3.07 of Wired Magazine discussed the interactive television trials in the summer of 1995. Interactive television is described as offering e-commerce, gaming, time shifting, and Web browsing. So in five years, people have added chat to the list.

As the article points out, trying to make television watching more efficient is a bit of an oxymoron: "It's the computer that was designed as a time-saving device. Not the TV. The TV has always been a time-wasting device…. The average American watches between four and five hours every day, according to Nielsen statistics. If they were so pressed for time, where did they get these extra hours in the first place?"

Yet, the standard ITV list still basically consists of ways to make your TV time-wasting more efficient.

PC Leisurefication

It is disappointing that so little thought seems to have gone into what the future of television really could be.

I'm not trying to single out Microsoft, or even the PC folks: the gaming people seem to be content to merely computer-ify their consoles just as much as the PC people are content to merely leisure-ify their computers.

It's just that all this seems so boring, and so unlikely to make me shell out any extra cash each month for the privilege of using it.

TV Dos and Don'ts

What would I like to see in the future of television? Since I generally don't like watching commercials, how about getting rid of them? Stick them on their own channel, for when I feel like getting paid to watch TV.

What about some intelligence to actually figure out what kind of shows I like, and make suggestions? Then when I feel like vegging out, I can reduce wear-and-tear on my remote control buttons.

Extending the Secondary Audio Program to include multiple language and subtitle choices would be nice. Then Americans could learn foreign languages the way Europeans do, or at least enjoy home-produced "Mystery Science Theater 3000" knockoffs.

Multiple camera angles? Arbitrary picture-in-picture? Clothing optional? Please, anything but e-commerce, gaming, time shifting, Web browsing, and chat.

Talkback Forum

Author's background:
Adam Barr worked at Microsoft for over ten years before leaving in April 2000. His book about his time there, "Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters," has just been published by and should be up on real soon now. He lives in Redmond, Washington.

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