From Curbside to Couchside by Francesca Gutierrez “Why does Cambell’s soup have a web site?” WebTV’s Phil Goldman wanted to know at the Churchill Club meeting on January 15th. “It’s about the promise of the Internet.” Now that the technology has arrived, how will this potential be realized, and when? Goldman and Network Computer’s Jerry Baker, prodded by the Institute for the Future’s Paul Saffo, shared their vision for bringing interactivity to the 60 percent of U.S. households without PCs. Why not push to get PCs in every home? “Is it intuitively obvious the PC was wrong?” asked moderator Jason Pontin. The unanimous response: Yes. PCs are too expensive, hard to set up and hard to use. Successful smart products of the future, it seems, must appeal to daft couch potatoes and will be delivered via the ubiquitous TV. WebTV is confident that so long as its product is cheap and easy to set up, everyone will use it. To do what? “Cross over” to the net for sports stats, to send e-mail, and to shop. Presumably, this makes better use of time while ads are running. Will this destroy the current broadcast finance model? Or will the future 500 digital channels be one long interactive infomercial? To find out, you need a phone line, a WebTV box, a subscription to WebTV’s internet service, and don’t forget the upgrades. Saffo defended consumers, stating that ease of use is not the only variable. Cars, for example, are expensive, hard to use, and kill people. Yet we make the effort to include them in our daily lives. Cars haven’t crossed what he calls our “threshold of indignation” where the effort expended in use is greater than the product’s benefit. Network Computer doesn’t want to be the service provider and control content like WebTV. Instead, it provides tools so ISPs can build custom services to meet subscibers’ needs. N/C focuses on application software. Strategic partners like Thompson Electronics produce and distribute products like RCA. Does it work? All of the Net TV units RCA built sold out over the holidays, but Baker wasn’t saying how many that was. When will this all take off? Now! insists Goldman, citing WebTV’s 250,000 subscribers. N/C expects its model to take about two years. Baker believes that the Internet and TV must become more compelling to the consumer. Paul Saffo thinks that neither will get us there: “Consumers are less convivial to subscription-based models than buying outright.” This can be finessed; for example, most PC applications software has to be regularly “upgraded.” While these early attempts at interactive TV might end up gathering dust in the garage, Microsoft’s $500m investment in the concept wasn’t wasted. Bill will end up with the intellectual property rights to ideas that will develop into a successful product, eventually. Whatever the outcome, it’s a great time to be a couch potato. © 1998 Francesca Gutierrez This program generously supported by InfoGear Technology Corp.
Jerry Baker, CEO, Network Computer, Inc, Steve Perlman, CEO, WebTV Jason Pontin, Editor, The Red Herring Paul Saffo, Director, Institute for the Future