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<nettime> L.A. Times column, 3/22/01
geert lovink on 23 Mar 2001 09:15:07 -0000

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<nettime> L.A. Times column, 3/22/01

From: "Gary Chapman" <gary.chapman {AT} mail.utexas.edu>

Thursday, March 22, 2001

Will Interactive Internet Television Turn Into a Two-Headed Monster?

By Gary Chapman

Copyright 2001, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved

It should come as no surprise that the Internet is headed to a very 
familiar technology: your television.

The idea of merging TV and the Web typically has been greeted with 
scorn, skepticism and disbelief among heavy Internet users. Critics 
of the concept have pointed out that the Internet is a "lean-forward" 
technology of active engagement, whereas TV is a "lean-back" 
technology of passive absorption.

However, market studies have shown that at least one in four Internet 
users watches TV while online, and companies are keen on catching the 
interest of these "multi-taskers." There are also new kinds of 
content on the Web that might be better suited to TV than to the PC 
monitor, and at least one of these innovative, interactive Web TV 
systems is Linux-based.

But plainly, some of these new Internet-based interactive TVs are not 
likely to convert critics.

For example, Microsoft's WebTV -- a set-top box and subscription 
service that allow limited Web and e-mail access on a TV screen -- is 
being replaced by the company's new UltimateTV platform. And giant 
AOL Time Warner is rolling out AOLTV at the same time. Both of these 
services will feature Internet access on TV as well as the features 
found in products such as TiVo or ReplayTV, which let TV viewers 
record programs on a hard drive or stop and replay live TV 
broadcasts. Both UltimateTV and AOLTV also will provide unique 
content to subscribers, a step toward both services becoming new, 
national TV networks.

But AOLTV and UltimateTV still have the constraints that hard-core 
Internet users disdain: the low resolution of current TV screens, 
which makes Web pages look cartoonish and often unreadable; the 
"dumbed-down" look and feel of services oriented to people who feel 
intimidated by a personal computer; and the overwhelming sense that 
interactive TV is aimed primarily at vacuuming users' wallets.

Among longtime Internet users there is a widespread contempt for 
commercial TV and its "lowest-common-denominator" marketing and 
programming, and thus irritation that the Internet might be pulled in 
this direction by the likes of Microsoft and AOL.

There are some emerging alternatives for interactive, Internet-based 
TV that might appeal even to the critics. A company in Santa Ana 
called Ch.1 (http://www.ch1.com) is working with TV set producers 
such as Princeton Graphics and Sylvania to hook high-definition, 
digital TVs directly to the Internet. The Ch.1 system, which is both 
the hardware inside a digital TV and a subscription service, allows 
full access to the Internet through any Internet Service Provider, 
even high-speed cable and DSL services, and the high-definition sets 
display Web pages and e-mail the same way they appear on computer 

The Ch.1 TV sets offered now run a modified version of the open 
source operating system, Linux. Ch.1 is using Linux in the hope it 
will lure designers to write applications for example to transfer 
data to Palms and other hand-held computers, and embedding certain 
kinds of video and audio formats in the system.

"We don't see our product as a replacement to the PC but as a 
supplement to it," says Rey Roque, vice president of Ch.1. Today, 
there's a lot of content emerging on the Web that can be viewed or 
heard, such as streaming video, Internet radio, MP3 music, weather 
maps, sports scores, online games, large graphics such as photographs 
and Flash animations. All of these things become more accessible with 
a fast broadband connection to the Internet.

The Web site Yack.com (http://www.yack.com), for example, lists 
hundreds of live and recorded Web events in video or audio formats, 
everything from talking pundits at the Cato Institute in Washington 
to an interview with a Belgian dominatrix. There's every reason to 
believe that people will watch a wide variety of Web content online 
through their TV sets, sharing the experience with others.

There also are growing opportunities for creating audio and video 
content for others to see. Apple Computer's user-friendly (and free) 
iMovie software is being used by thousands of people to create quick 
and interesting video files. The Independent Media Center, whose Los 
Angeles branch was created during the Democratic Convention last 
year, allows people to post video and audio files (under 100 
megabytes) on the Web for free (http://la.indymedia.org).

It's obvious that a battle is shaping up about whether the Internet 
will quickly become dominated by giant companies that will mimic the 
programming and advertising models of TV today, or an explosion of 
creative and diverse content gradually will replace mass-market 
programming. Whichever model wins will have an immense effect on 
society for years to come.

Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the 
University of Texas. He can be reached at 
gary.chapman {AT} mail.utexas.edu.
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