Ready or not, here comes digital TV. On Nov. 1, 42 U.S. stations will begin broadcasting high-definition TV. They will usher in a new era of convergence, bringing together entertainment, computing, and telecommunications. The promise is exciting: sparkling screen resolution, TV interactivity, access to the Web, videoconferencing with mom and dad. You name it. But getting there may be messy. The lack of standards plaguing the cell-phone industry pales in comparison with the situation in the nascent digital-TV market. The longer cable operators, broadcasters, computer and equipment makers, and consumer-electronics giants delay establishing compatibility for consumer HDTV products, the longer it will take for digital TV to evolve into a popular industry.
Washington was right to get out of the way in the rush to HDTV. After all, Tokyo spent billions and came up with the wrong technology--analog. U.S. companies shifted high-definition to digital, clearly the superior choice. But diverse players in the budding HDTV marketplace are creating complex incompatibilities. Cable companies and broadcasters, for example, use different "modulation" systems so cable boxes won't be able to display HDTV broadcasts that originate over the air. Some encoder boxes won't work with some digital TV sets. In time, the marketplace should shake much of this out. But the failure of companies involved in HDTV to cooperate early on will delay the successful evolution of the new industry. With HDTV in its infancy, there's still time to fix that.