PC = TV = Mixmaster?

Someday soon, all your appliances will talk to their friends on the Web.

Does your television want to be a computer? Does your computer want to be a VCR? Does your Mixmaster want to be a telephone? The moguls who control the computer, television, and telephone businesses think so, and they are populating your future with Internet appliances. Already on sale are such I-appliance devices as Web-aware televisions and e-mail telephones, which offer quick and easy Internet access for consumers who fear personal computers. These appliances are as simple to run as a microwave or a toaster oven. Just plug them in, and before you know it, you’re reading your favorite online magazines, ordering Puff Daddy & the Family concert tickets, and composing e-mail from the comfort of your Naugahyde couch.

TV and telephone manufacturers are nuts about I-appliances because they view them as a way to sell new boxes to a world supersaturated with phones and televisions: More U.S. homes have a television (96 percent) than have phone service. The computer industry sees I-appliances as a way to sell chip and software packages to what they consider an under-PCed world. Only 40 percent of U.S. households own a PC, and two-thirds of all new PC purchases are made by folks who already own one.

The vision of a computer/television/telephone thingamajig dates back to early episodes of The Jetsons, if not before. Techno-utopian George Gilder foresaw the convergence of all these electronic boxes into one back in his 1990 book, Life After Television, proposing a simple yet powerful “teleputer” device. Gilder was right about convergence, but as we’ll see, he was also wrong.

Among the first entries in the I-appliance market is WebTV, a $300 box-and-keyboard combination built by Sony and Phillips. WebTV hooks your television into your telephone line to provide access to the Web. (Full disclosure: I work for the Great Satan that is behind WebTV.) Think of WebTV as a whip-smart version of the set-top box you rent from your cable-TV provider. What’s smart about WebTV compared with a set-top box? WebTVs are essentially tiny, simple computers. The new model boasts a 1.1-gigabyte hard drive and a 56,600 bits-per-second modem, comparable to what you’d find in a low-end laptop. The cable company’s set-top boxes, which couldn’t calculate the cube root of 8 if you gave them a hint, merely decode TV signals from the cable people. A unit of Oracle Corp. has developed a similar Web-aware product called Enhanced TV. Sun Microsystems, which recently bought I-appliance designer Diba Inc., is also developing a competing set-top standard of its own, OpenTV.

Web-aware televisions are fantastic because they’re cheap and they work. But they also suck because they’re slow and their graphics are worse than what you find on a PC monitor. Only 100,000 WebTVs have been sold so far, but that number is sure to rise: WebTV vendor Phillips is peddling the machine door-to-door, Fuller Brush-style. Salesmen will visit your home, plug you in, and explain all the machine’s wonders to you.

Another even simpler I-appliance is the EP-200 e-mail telephone by Uniden. This device merges a Caller ID-ready, 900 MHz cordless phone with e-mail and calendar systems. A tad pricier at $399 than WebTV, the EP-200 is fun for the whole family, allowing multiple users to receive and send e-mail (the Internet connection costs $4.95 a month). Uniden and others promise Web browsing on future e-mail telephones. Also flooding the market are cellular phones that send and receive e-mail.

Not content with being your spreadsheet program, word processor, Web device, game machine, and recipe keeper, PCs want to be your home entertainment center, too. A variety of manufacturers build PCs that connect you to the Web, display TV broadcasts, play music CDs, and screen DVD movies. PC maker Gateway 2000 bills the Destination Digital Media Computer as an audio/video monster that engulfs you in a “wall of sound” as you play Doom on a 31-inch monitor with a “screaming 300 MHz Intel Pentium II processor.” (Gateway hasn’t attached a phone to it. Yet.)

The PC industry may believe in convergence, but the broadcasters don’t. Broadcasters like their televisions dumb, mostly because they’re afraid that the PC industry will steal their business if computers and televisions merge. (They’re probably right.) So, the two groups have gone to war over the technical standards for the next TV technology, digital TV. All you need to know about the digital TV standard proposed by the computer people is that it’s more flexible and powerful and offers better resolution (and is much more computer-friendly) than the current standard of analog TV or the digital standard pitched by broadcasters.

C able company spinoff WorldGate also wants your television to stay as dumb as an eggbeater, because it’s found a way to offer cheap Internet access through existing cable boxes. The cost is $4.95 a month (keyboard rental will set you back an additional $1.95). Question: How can something as stupid as a set-top box connect to the Internet? Answer: WorldGate keeps all the brains back at the office. Its computers recognize Web-page requests from set-top boxes and then ship the pages back to the requesting televisions in a compact, single image (a “bitmap”). (The WorldGate system depends on the vertical blanking interval, an unused part of each TV channel, to send the bitmap. Click for a tidy explanation of the vertical blanking interval.) Critics say WorldGate’s computers will choke when thousands of surfers start demanding Web pages. Webhead says don’t underestimate the cable companies, who have such enormous bandwidth at their disposal that they can do anything (see my piece on bandwidth).

Will your Mixmaster ever fulfill its career ambition to become an I-appliance? Shuman’s Second Law of Computational Dynamics suggests so. This law states that wherever computer chips go, the Internet will follow: Everything that’s powered by electricity will eventually become studded with computer chips. And as these dumb devices become smarter, manufacturers will explore ways to make them more useful–that is, smarter still, which means connecting them to the Internet so they can share their wisdom with other devices. Take the example of the Internet-enabled car, currently a pipe dream. The modern automobile is laden with microchips, which control fuel intake, cruise control, anti-lock brakes, and more. It’s only a short step from where we are now to the Network Vehicle, being developed by Netscape, Sun, Delco, and IBM. It will be “outfitted with voice recognition, transparent displays, global positioning systems, and Internet access.” The Network Vehicle designers left car phones off the list, I guess, because they assume that car phones are practically standard equipment today.

The take-home lesson of this edition of Webhead is that all electronic devices are converging at a wicked rate. But they’re also diverging. Our powerful, multipurpose computers will continue to become even more powerful, but as they acquire new skills–like voice recognition–their appeal will be limited by their price. Meanwhile their simpler brethren, assigned specific and narrow tasks (look for Internet-aware watches, biomedical monitors, and security devices), will occupy the price niche of clock radios and bread makers. In the future, the way to tell a real computer from an I-appliance will be that you tell a real computer what to do and when to do it whereas an I-appliance will tell you what to do and when to do it.