NetChannel Inc, the rival to Microsoft Corp’s WebTV Networks Inc launched its service in New York yesterday, 24 hours before WebTV launched its second generation service just a few block away. NetChannel has an exclusive agreement with Thomson Consumer Electronics RCA division, which yesterday placed its set-top box unit into retail channels at $300 and $350. The box is based on designs form Oracle Corp’s Network Computer Inc (NCI), which also provided the operating systems and software. NetChannel’s whole premise is that its service is the internet and television, rather than the internet on television. It treats its service like another channel on the TV, and has signed agreements with numerous content providers, from E!Online to TicketMaster Inc. The content is personalized after the user registers his or her zip code using, neural net-based agent technology from Autonomy Systems Plc. The RCA box is aimed squarely at non-PC, non- technical users who don’t have an internet account at present. It supports up to six individual users plus one ‘family’ user ID – each with their own email address. The service cannot be accessed from any other internet service provider (ISP), and NetChannel co-founder president and CEO Philip Monego said the company had no intention of linking up with ISP to provide interconnection because that’s not the market the company is after. He also expressed reservations about dealing with so many ISPs, some of which are just a Pentiums in a basement, and users would not tolerate the outages experienced with the regular internet, he said. NetChannel users can however, type in a URL and go anywhere on the internet if they choose. The company hosts two servers, one on each cost of the US. NetChannel charges $20 per month for the service, and the boxes come with a regular keyboard and universal remote for $300, or with a wireless keyboard for $50 more. A printer port is included. The modem is 33.6kbps and the box runs on a 48MHz ARM 7500FE RISC processor from Advanced Risc Machines Ltd. Technical support is provided initially by NetChannel through an 888 toll-free number and then passed on to RCA if it’s about hardware. As the box up and downloads information over the phone line, the NetChannel service would be suspended while the user makes the call. But Monego insists the box is ready now to support downloading via cable boxes, which will be the next step for the RCA box – there are a lot of discussions in that area, says NetChannel – and is what WebTV is expected to announce today. Any such arrangement needs the cooperation of the cable companies, where Microsoft’s contacts have no doubt proved useful for WebTV. Meanwhile, by the year end NCI is expected to announce a second cut of its software, this time combining with the technology it acquired with stock-swap for Netscape Communications Corp’s Navio unit. The Navio Technology is called EnhancedTV and enables viewers to watch TV all the time with the web overlaid and the content will be synchronized. Enhanced TV is based on something called HTML-TV that Navio has created to enable providers to put tags on content so it can be linked with the appropriate TV program. NCI says it has signed letter of understanding with a number of hardware manufacturers to use the combined NCI/Navio offering, which is a separate deal from the one with NetChannel.
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