If you think the TV people are going to sit idly by while the computer industry eats their lunch, you are mistaken. Interactive TV is coming and this time it is for real.

TVís secret weapon is already sitting on top of your TV. You donít even notice it most of the time; it is the cable box. This simple device is about to grow up. The TV industry is planning on having this analog channel changer become a full blown interactive computer packing processing power equal to your home PC, but controlled by a remote control, and outputting to the TV screen instead of a monitor. The early versions of these advanced set top boxes have already started to come to market. If the government has its way these set-top boxes will no longer be distributed by the cable company. In the future, maybe as early as next year, youíll buy set-top boxes at a consumer electronics store. It may come in many forms, integrated with your DVD player or a stereo tuner, but who is going to be producing these boxes?

The two big producers of current set top boxes are Scientific Atlanta (SA) and General Instruments (GI). Microsoft also has an installed base of 800,000 with their WebTV product line. Let's take a look at what these three hardware vendors are producing.

Scientific Atlanta has been an infrastructure powerhouse in the cable, telephone and utility fields. For years the set top box has only been a channel-changing device for analog cable systems and has been kept fairly simple. Over the past few years SA has started rolling out digital/analog hybrid boxes that are forward compatible for upcoming digital information services. By doing this they will be ready when these services are announced with a large installed base. SA runs all of their boxes on the PowerTV standard. SA has recently rolled out the first two-way real-time digital set-top box of note, the Explorer 2000. It packs some impressive hardware.

 

General Instrument has also been preparing a number of boxes. Their most powerful set-top box is being released in Q3 of 1999 and is called the DCT-5000. The DCT-5000 runs on the Open Cable specification. GI has already shipped 2.7 million interactive digital cable set top terminals and has agreements to supply most of the leading cable TV operators in North America with approximately 15 million interactive digital set top terminals over the next three to five years. Many of these boxes are the older DCT-2000 boxes, but they are still ready to start receiving digital services. The specs on the DCT-5000 are very computer like:

The Microsoft WebTV box is the most primitive of the group. It is the only one that is analog. It also has the highest market penetration, has Microsoft's brand behind it and has name recognition in the consumer market place. WebTV will eventually move to being a Windows CE based system, probably in about a year. Until then they will maintain their own proprietary system. WebTV comes in three varieties currently. The WebTV Classic offers simple web access through the TV. Web TV Plus, which comes with a 1.08 GB hard drive and offers Interactive TV capabilities. The most recent entry is a box that combines service from EchoStar satellite TV with an enhanced WebTV box with an 8.6 GB hard drive. Called the EchoStar 7100 it will users to initially pause video programs for up to half and hour. In the fall the box will automatically upgrade to provide Video Recording Computer (VRC) capabilities, in this case up to 8 hours of programming can be recorded to the hard drive. Recording will be done through the Electronic Program Guide (EPG). The current capabilities of the Web TV Plus box are:

These set top boxes are just the beginning of a new class of consumer electronics that will eventually fuse the Web and TV.

Jeff Rule is a principal at RuleWeb Development specializing in Interactive TV, Broadband Web Development, DHTML, SMIL, and Java-based multimedia. His first book, Dynamic HTML: The HTML Developer's Guide was published in January 1999 by Addison Wesley Longman.