Originally created 12/25/96

This week's tech tips



(KRT) New technology came down in a torrent in 1996 ... but also progressed at a snail's pace.

Consumers bought millions of PCs and zillions of TVs and VCRs and CD players, yet most retailers were crying the blues - because everyone is "giving the product away" at close to cost. Well, at least they're all helping to keep the inflation rate down.

Here are our votes for the most intriguing high-tech happenings of '96 - some for better, others for worse.

- On-line hang-ups: CompuServe introduced, then killed off its family-oriented WOW! on-line service in less than a year, and hinted it was getting out of unprofitable consumer operations altogether. Microsoft remodeled its on-line MSN with TV channel-style presentation and content. (If you can't beat 'em, get 'em where they live.) But the really big cybernews was America Online's re-pricing to a $19.95-per-month all-you-can-eat package.

AOL's bold strategy to upgrade customers automatically (unless otherwise informed) caused a legal hue and cry in many states, and a semi-about-face by the company. Yet customers by the millions have leaped at the chance to keep their phone lines open and connected constantly to AOL for e-mail and such - causing huge network traffic jams, apologies from AOL and demands from phone companies for extra compensation for on-line connections.

If the Baby Bells do win this one, cheap on-line service could soon be a thing of the past ... unless you get it directly from the phone companies, that is.

- Internet TVs: Best product of the year honors go to Gateway 2000 for the Destination - a $3,000-plus multimedia PC built around a large-screen monitor - and to the combined forces of Sony and Philips for introducing the WebTV set-top box system ($329 and up). Both bring the joys of surfing the Internet and e-mailing to the comfort of your living room. By the year 2000, you won't be able to buy a large-screen TV that doesn't offer this option.

- Comeback kid: Previously down but never out, video games enjoyed a huge resurgence this year, thanks to higher-resolution and faster-running systems. The much-ballyhooed Nintendo 64 was as hard to come by as Tickle Me Elmo, while the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn also enjoyed a happy holiday season. Why? You'll be amazed how much better the spurting blood and crashing cars look on these new-generation players.

- The V-chip controversy: Congress has mandated that every 13-inch and bigger television that's manufactured from 1998 on will have the electronic means to lock out programming children shouldn't see. At the same time, Congress commanded that broadcasters flag their programming with both an on-screen ratings announcement and a technical signal that will cue the so-called "V chip" in these new TVs.

Last week, TV programmers unveiled their movie-like ratings guidelines, which go into effect Jan. 1: TV-Y is a show for all children, TV-Y7 is for children ages 7 and above and TV-G is for general audiences. TV-PG marks programs with parental guidance suggested; TV-14 offers a parents-strongly-cautioned message, while TV-M is for mature audiences only.

Some citizens' groups have groused that the ratings aren't specific enough. But the point may prove moot. TV sets last 10-15 years, so by the time most people trade in their current models for ones with V-chips, some of the "kids" will be raising their own.

- Digital recording re-visited: What's this fear of digital recording all about? Concern by the creative community about machines that can make perfect copies stopped the excellent digital audio tape format in its tracks at the beginning of this decade, and this year prevented DVD (short for digital versatile discs) from reaching the marketplace on schedule.

The truth is that people will settle for far less than the best - spending good money for bootleg videos of movies shot in a theater with a camcorder (even Jerry Seinfeld got into that act), or for legit tapes duplicated at the fuzzy long-play speed.

Tech specs now in place for DVD guarantee you won't be able to make any kind of copy - digital or analog - from the new discs. Look for the players and software to finally hit stores in the spring. DBS - the tail wags the dog: Almost 5 million consumers are now watching TV via the high-quality, small-dish digital satellite systems DSS, Primestar and Echostar, and the cable TV companies are sweating. Not because they're down that many viewers - cable is still wired in 60-plus million homes - but because cablers are losing their best customers, the ones who spend the big bucks on premium channels, season-ticket sports packages and pay-per-view movies.

Fighting fire with fire, cable-equipment makers General Instrument and Scientific Atlanta this summer announced a new generation of set-top boxes that can receive both analog and (new) digital signals through existing coaxial cable lines. (It's already up and running in Hartford, Conn.) And the nation's largest cable company, Tele-Communications Inc., is plotting a hybrid service that will combine current cable offerings with dish-received premium channels - heaviest on movies and sports - for reception through a single set-top box.

- HDTV homecoming: An impasse between television and computer interests and foot-dragging by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt have kept the development of wide-screen, high-definition TV on the back burner for years. (Remember when we thought HDTV would be introduced at the summer Olympics in Atlanta?)

Pressured by the White House, the various parties involved finally set most aspects of a standard last month. However, they agreed to disagree about whether HDTV should use progressive scanning technology (favored by computer-makers) or interlaced scanning (like today's current TV broadcasts, and necessary if any videotapes recorded up to now are to be viewable on the next generation of gear).

While the computer faction may go their own way, it's certain that high-def TV sets, at least, will contain the circuitry to receive both progressive and interlaced broadcasts. Now the question is, will the new technology hit the ground running in mid-1998, as newly promised? PBS is already beaming HDTV test signals via satellite, while both NBC and CBS have prototype stations up and running in Washington and New York City, respectively.

Local broadcasters might not be so obliging, though, to welcome this brave new world. Many TV stations haven't even been willing to upgrade to stereo sound, yet are now being asked to spend the really big bucks to build and power up an HDTV operation, running parallel to their current transmission equipment for the next, oh, 15 years or so. A more likely scenario will bring HDTV home first on satellite TV, cable and DVD discs.

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