Rather than dashing around the shops for last-minute items on Christmas Eve, the US Federal Communications Commission was meeting to approve the technology standard for high-definition television that was hastily cobbled together at the last minute after nine years’ work had come up with a standard that in the end, no-one wanted. Under the new standard, fine-tuning details will be left to the market, which means that some consumers will almost inevitably be orphaned as were users of Betamax and Philips 2000 video cassette recorders when the market decided that VHS might be the worst of the three competing standards, but it was the one that had the software.
Interlaced and progressive scanning
The high-definition standard just approved is based on the compromise agreed last month by the broadcast, consumer electronics and computer industries. Digital transmission makes so much more efficient use of bandwidth that the new standard will allow for transmission of one or two high-resolution programs or up to five standard shows on a single existing channel. For the US market, the Commission will decide later on a possible reallocation of channels between broadcasters – those holding licences to existing channels argued that they should be allowed to keep their rights and gain control over the new channel subdivisions, but some legislators and companies seeking licences for the first time want to start from scratch and auction off the new channels. Importantly, the new standard does not take a position on picture size or quality, and where the television manufacturers wanted to continue to transmit interlaced pictures -two screen scans for every frame to reduce flicker – the computer industry argued that this would stifle the convergence of television and computer technologies, and argued for line-by-line progressive scanning. This is now left open by the standard, although it does specify how audio and video will be digitiZed and the compression and decompression methods to be used. Because no scanning format is specified, the computer industry will be free to continue to manufacture multimedia computers that use just progressive scanning. And television manufacturers say they are ready to make sets that offer both interlaced and progressive scanning, laying the seeds of a fight to the death over whether the television set or the computer will become the core of the home entertainment system of the Millennium. Ultimately, the personal computer will be the preferred communications device in the household, said Paul Misener predictably – he is manager of telecommunications and computer technology policy at Intel Corp, and that has been Intel’s line for some time. Recognizing that if Windows, with its implied mantras we never forget you have no choice and your time is of no value, is a measure of the computer industry’s contemptuous attitude to the consumer, Intel and its friends in the software industry still have an awful lot to learn, The computer people need to evaluate how the average consumer wants to get delivery to the home, says Lisa Fasold, speaking for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association. TV sets typically last a lot longer than computers. And they’re much more simple to operate. Manufacturers ex-pect to begin bringing digital receivers to market in 1998, at from $1,500 to $3,000, although prices are forecast to start falling fairly soon.