Software That Smoothes The Differences Among Digital T Vs

It's pretty much taken for granted that any television set in the country is capable of receiving any television program. But that's not true in the computer world: You generally can't run an IBM program on a Macintosh computer. Planners of the Information Superhighway fear that the incompatibilities plaguing computers today could also hamper the computerized, digital televisions of the future. Now, though, a Pittsburgh company is pushing a piece of software that could sit inside television set-top boxes and smooth over hardware incompatibilities.

Television Computer Inc., whose founders include members of Carnegie Mellon University's faculty, calls its software "virtual machine" code. Other companies have developed virtual machine code, including Sun Microsystems Inc.'s First Person Inc. and Kaleida Labs, the joint venture of IBM and Apple Computer Inc. that is trying to make Macs and IBMs run the same multimedia software. But those are being held close to the vest. Television Computer is offering to license its software without charge, hoping that a standard "platform" will create a broader audience for future programming from it and its partners.

The core software, still under development, will be a small kernel that gives set-tops a few basic capabilities, such as the ability to scan for data on the information highway. Company Chairman Robert H. Thibadeau, a senior research scientist at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science, says that companies could customize the boxes for specialized functions.

The concept is attracting plenty of interest. "Whatever we can do to make the set-top box more interoperable is a good thing," says Richard Ducey, senior vice-president for the National Association of Broadcasters' research and information group.

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