James Walton Stewart has spent the days since Christmas firing off electronic mail to relatives and trolling the World Wide Web for information on mandolins and Presbyterian churches.
But Stewart, a 90-year-old retired minister, hasn't spent a minute in front of a personal computer. In fact, he doesn't even own one.
Stewart has been doing his browsing of the worldwide computer network through his TV set with the help of a small box made by Philips Electronics NV.
The box, which sits atop his TV, connects him to a new service called WebTV that enables ordinary couch potatoes to reach the Web.
Introduced just before Thanksgiving, WebTV is either a revolution in computing or a seasonal fad.
Proponents tout WebTV as a service to introduce the Web to the millions of people who don't own a personal computer and are curious about the 50 million pages that litter the computer network.
With a price tag far cheaper than a personal computer's, and relatively easy-to-use features, WebTV will bring the wonders of the Web to technological illiterates, fans say.
"This uses the Internet as an extension of the TV-viewing experience," said Chip Herman, vice president of marketing for WebTV, a privately held company with headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif.
For example, a viewer watching the Super Bowl could easily switch to viewing player statistics on the NFL's Web site - or do both simultaneously, using a TV that can display two pictures at a time.
But skeptics say the Internet isn't ready to make its TV debut. Most Web sites, they point out, simply aren't entertaining enough to captivate the average TV watcher. What's more, the WebTV system presupposes some untested sociology: that Web browsing will move from solitary users in the office to a group environment in the living room.
"It's like using a telephone to listen to the radio," said Josh Bernoff, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consulting company. "You can do it, but the quality isn't very good, and it's not very conducive to doing so. ... Frankly, we have found the package to be a little wanting from the consumer's perspective."
Retailers have sold about 30,000 WebTV boxes, according to their manufacturers, Philips's Magnavox division and Sony Corp. That may not sound like much - especially considering heavy Christmas advertising by WebTV and Philips - but all the companies say they are gratified by the early results.
They point out that WebTV is moving off shelves faster than other consumer electronic products did in their first few months. When compact-disc players were introduced in 1983, manufacturers sold just 35,000 units in the first year, according to the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association.
The WebTV box, priced from $325 to $395, connects a viewer's TV to a phone line. To activate service, a consumer also must subscribe to the Internet service provided exclusively by WebTV for $20 a month.
At those prices, the hardware is about $650 cheaper than the least expensive personal computer, while the monthly service is on par with other Internet providers.
WebTV's backers are encouraged by the sheer number of people who have TV sets - about 95 million households in all, compared with about 17.5 million that have personal computers capable of connecting to the Internet.
But a WebTV cannot do as much as a PC and modem. There's no way for WebTV customers to save files on a disk or hard drive, as computer users can. Nor can viewers print out material. And unless they buy a keyboard for an additional $75, WebTV subscribers will be stuck using the system's point-and-click remote control.
WebTV also doesn't give users full entrance to the Internet. As the name implies, the service is limited to the graphics-rich World Wide Web, excluding discussion areas.
Overall, early users seem to be giving the system mixed reviews.
"I'm very much impressed by it," said Stewart, who lives in a Richmond, Va., nursing home. "Others in my family are using the computer,and I don't want to feel left out."
Stewart received the device as a present from his grandson, a marketing executive for a software company. The grandson, Charles Allen, now sends him regular e-mail messages, one of which included a picture of the family's Christmas dinner, which Stewart wasn't able to attend.
But Jane Wiegand, 60, who received a WebTV from her two sons for Christmas, said she still isn't convinced it's anything more than a novelty for her. She and one of her sons used it to connect to a Web site that allows people to look up friends' addresses. Later she visited sites hosted by National Geographic magazine, the Smithsonian and USA Today.
One day last week, however, she didn't rush to turn on the box.
"I think it's pretty neat, but I'm still not sure this is for me," said Wiegand, who lives in Bethesda, Md. "People say that once you're fascinated with the Internet, you use it all the time. But I still like to watch regular programs on TV."
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