Originally created 01/19/99

Placing bets on digital bits



LAS VEGAS -- The media-industrial complex put some serious cash on the table at the Consumer Electronics Show here, betting that the promise of a digital-everything lifestyle will lead us to replace our TVs, VCRs, tape decks and even our already-digital CDs.

The biggest gamble of the bunch is digital television, especially its dazzlingly sharp high-resolution form, HDTV. A whopping 13,176 digital sets were sold in 1998, according to the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, the Arlington, Va., trade group that puts on this annual orgy of techno-hype. Nobody expects that volume to change for a while: The $6,000-and-up price of most high-definition sets will break your eyes, and HDTV programming is spotty at best.

As for plain old analog TV, two personalization services aim to give the idiot box some brains later this year. Both TiVo and ReplayTV's $500-ish set-top boxes attach a hard drive to your TV set, so you can pause and rewind programs. Both also include "smart" programming guides to help you watch more and better TV; TiVo adds more personalization capabilities and a $10 monthly charge.

The outlook for digital music is almost as fuzzy as that for HDTV. Neither Sony's MiniDisc nor the recordable CDs championed by Philips have a major edge in what's currently a slow-motion race to replace cassettes. Philips, however, is finally cutting the costs of single-use CD-Rs and re-recordable "CD-RWs," although MiniDiscs are still cheaper. Its new CD players will also play CD-RWs, which don't work on almost all existing hardware.

Two industry coalitions are proposing successors for compact discs. Sony and Philips are pushing Super Audio Compact Disc, a higher-capacity mutation of the CD with a purer digitization scheme and multi-channel surround sound -- plus a lower-quality, backward-compatible layer of data in the disc so it will play on existing equipment. Another, broader group of manufacturers is readying DVD-Audio, a spinoff of the popular digital video disc (almost 1.4 million DVD players were shipped in the United States last year). DVD-Audio also supports multichannel sound and more-faithful sound reproduction, but -- duh! -- won't play on today's DVD or CD players. And in demonstrations of both technologies, I couldn't hear any major improvement; on ordinary speakers, the difference will be inaudible even for people with dog ears.

To help tie all of these audiovideocomputer goodies together, several companies showed home-networking technologies. Microsoft, for instance, touted a "Universal Plug and Play Initiative," which I could only laugh at after spending an hour getting a ThinkPad to recognize its own modem. And, naturally, there's no unified standard (for one thing, that would force companies to compete on prices, which means lower profit margins), so we'll all have to wait for Microsoft, Sony and God knows who else to slug it out. As people tend to learn in casinos, sometimes the only winning move is not to play.