If you read some of the more enthusiastic accounts of the America Online-Time Warner deal, you might believe the long-awaited convergence of television and the Internet is just around the corner. Over the past month or so, I've spent a lot of time using a device that takes convergence about as far as it can go today, by combining satellite TV, digital recording, and the Internet. While it was fun and intriguing, my experience suggests that this sort of convergence has a long way to go before it catches on.
I tested an EchoStar DISHPlayer 500 satellite receiver (www.dishnet.com), which incorporates Microsoft Corp.'s WebTV Plus service for Internet access. I found the satellite-TV part of the package a lot more satisfying than the Internet portion. The service has three pieces. First, you need a 20-inch EchoStar dish antenna, a DISHPlayer receiver, and a subscription to one of the DISHnet programming plans (table).
DISHPlayer 500 includes a large hard disk, which, in conjunction with WebTV's Personal TV service, can be used to record up to 12 hours of programming. You can also hit a pause button while watching a show live, grab a snack, and return to the show where you left off. The effect is similar to the stand-alone digital TV recorders from TiVo and Replay Networks, but putting the satellite receiver and recorder in a single box makes for a dynamite entertainment combo. (DirecTV also plans to offer a receiver with TiVo built in.)
The quality of the reception is outstanding--superior to either broadcast or standard cable. However, the system of searching for shows to watch or record could stand improvement. Both TiVo and Replay's latest versions make it much easier than Personal TV to create groups of favorite shows or channels.
Adding the Internet to the package is an intriguing idea, but it doesn't work very well. First, a TV remains a lousy device for displaying Web pages. The first problem is with WebTV's service, which hasn't changed much since its debut in 1996. Compared with the Netscape Communications and Microsoft Explorer browsers on PCs, WebTV is primitive. You navigate the screen--tediously--by using arrow keys on a remote or wireless keyboard to move through highlighted links, one after another. And for a TV-based medium, the WebTV browser has limited capacity for Net audio and video. The e-mail program is also minimal, with little ability to deal with attachments.
Even if the browser were better, the combination only emphasizes the poverty of the Web as a visual medium. Compared to high-quality TV, Web pages are static and visually dull, and comparing Web banner ads with TV commercials is laughable. A full-screen video image requires that data be fed at a steady rate of at least 1.5 million bits per second, and it will be years before the Web can deliver that. Even with cable modems or high-speed digital subscriber lines (DSL) into homes, the Web is not capable of that sort of sustained speed.
The payoff for combining the Web and TV should come from interactive television--Web links that appear live on your screen and invite you to interact in some way with the broadcast. But WebTV's brand of interactivity adds little. You can play along with Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune (something I've managed nicely without interactive TV) or respond to polls on MSNBC--and little else.
DEADLY WAIT. A big handicap for interactive TV and other WebTV Internet services is that they rely on dial-up connections. By the time I waited a couple of minutes to establish a connection, I often forgot what I wanted to interact with. Similarly, waiting several minutes for a response to a click on a movie's Web link is painful. This would work a lot better if WebTV were paired with a two-way cable system rather than the inherently one-way satellite TV. Unfortunately, that's not an option now.
The convergence of the Web and television remains an appealing but elusive goal. The programming choices and image quality of satellite TV make a terrific combination with digital recording features. But the Internet part of the package has a long way to go to overcome slow connections, poor-quality display, and a clumsy browser.
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