"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 13 September 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Swimming Up the Mainstream



Money might be the world's most

popular mass medium, but the

high cost of reality often makes

loss leaders of even the

mightiest corporate behemoths.

The philosopher-kings who rule

postindustrial artifacts like

Netscape and Microsoft regularly

use vapor as a sophisticated

crowd-control weapon, but he who

ships sets the parameters of the

discussion. And last week the

first Philips-manufactured WebTV

console hit the racks of

Chicagoland. Before October,

Circuit City salesmen will have

just begun to devise their crack

three-minute tours. By

Christmas, half of you might own



[Web T.V.]

It's possible that the unlucky

few who own Sega Saturns might

cough up $200 for a NetLink

cartridge, the preternaturally

patient might hold out until

next summer for Mitsubishi's

Java-bedazzled DiamondWeb, and

the ten people who own Pippins

will likely form a vocal user

group. But for the rest of us,

especially the techno-impatient

home-entertainment-unitheads who

have yet to join us online, this

peek at the future of the glass

teat will be like a trip to

Porky's. Priced in the high

$200s and sporting the first

turnkey solution to web access,

the WebTV sales proposition is a

just-in-time outlet for an

orgiastic wash of adolescent

lust - a small price to pay to

see the much-publicized jewels.



Of course, the subject of all

this secondhand consecration

will not be able to blame the

photographer should the snapshot

prove unflattering. The founders

of Web TV are veterans of the

computer industry's most

info-rich, cash-poor disaster -

Apple. After watching their

original design inventions

(QuickTime, QuickDraw,

MultiFinder, among others)

wither at Apple, and their more

auspicious efforts at General

Magic bite the sidewalk, they

turned failure into their

oracle. WebTV aims to be for the

web what the Mac was to the IBM

PC. And it might be - minus the

profit margin.



The still-imaginary throngs of

users of WebTV's service are

expected to pay a $20/month flat

fee for a front end to the web

that makes AOL look like brain

surgery - which, one could

argue, is precisely what they

should expect and deserve.

Forget Netscape, forget Eudora -

there are no software choices

for the WebTV user. What they

see - the WebTV "browser" - is

what they get. And when that

needs updating, it'll be the

decision of CEO Steve Perlman or

one of his lieutenants. No Java,

JavaScript, RealAudio,

Shockwave, or ActiveX. HTML 3.0

yes, but frames no. Maybe later,

maybe never.



Instead, curious consumers will

be greeted by a phalanx of

simple pleasures which, with any

luck, they'll soon learn to take

for granted - a navigational

interface that only intrudes

when called upon; a similar

pop-up visual, thumbnail history

of one's course; a

web-integrated email client that

invites HTML; and a

crystal-clear display on even

the crappiest dunce box.

Ponderous sites like c|net and

Salon as well as the picayune,

from Feed to Placing, will find

themselves served well by the



[Web TV]

But will they find themselves

well-received by the clientele?

Detractors might suggest that

the web calls itself a medium

only after being determined

neither rare nor well-done, but

this television-bred cynicism is

still premature. The

web-in-a-box, independent of its

reception, will be a loss of

innocence for the industry.

Opening night will find many

caught with their pants down -

and with little in the way of

entertainment, shopping, or

coherent edification careening

over the digital transoms, it'll

take a generous leap of faith

before most see the web as

anything other than an overblown

receptacle for

sub-public-access doggerel. Or

worse, an even more expensive




Of course, television of twenty

years ago was a far richer

medium than the net of today,

but that didn't stop Pong from

taking names. The challenge of

duplicating that success is

steep - creating a new product

category has toppled fools

before and will again. But with

a good ad campaign, a little

reliability from their partnered

network of national ISPs, and a

spiffy Miss America online

voting page, the dream of a

buy-button attached to every TV

could become a reality soon,

guaranteeing a perennial

Christmas for commerce. But even

if WebTV and their inevitable

clones succeed in making the web

and email submit to the

universal remote, at this stage

in the game, it's still up for

grabs whether the couch potatoes

of America will really want to

tune in.

courtesy of Duke of URL