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Technology / AI and automation

ORACLE’S NCI RUSHES TO CATCH UP IN WEB-ENABLED TV BATTLE

The distinction between the internet and television is getting increasingly blurred and now Oracle Corp, through its newly- enlarged Network Computer Inc (NCI) affiliate is planning a system called Enhanced TV that will send web pages down to televisions using the vertical blanking interval of current analog TV signals that can be adapted for sending data. NCI, whose technology is being merged with that of former Netscape Communications Corp unit Navio in a share swap that closed yesterday, says the service will be available before the year- end. NCI’s initial foray into this area, in collaboration with service and content provider NetChannel Inc and manufacturer Thomson Consumer Electronics is due to hit the shops Labor Day in the shape of a $300 set-top box. That will work in a similar way to the WebTV Networks Inc boxes manufactured by Sony and Phillips. Both systems dial-in over conventional telephone lines to provide their services. A similar box manufactured by Zenith Electronics Corp using NCI’s software is due shortly after, though no date has been set. Next year NCI and its partners will offer set-top boxes that deliver web content over two-way coaxial cable system. That will require not only the cable operators to upgrade their operations centers to handle them, but also new set-top boxes. The new Enhanced TV boxes are going to cost more than the first RCA offerings, which come in at $300. NCI’s VP marketing Dave Limp says the company is talking to both groups at the moment. Rival WebTV Networks Inc’s co-founder and chief executive Steve Perlman dismissed NCI’s proposed product as 1980s technology. He also said that at present many cable companies block vertical blanking signals to avoid unwanted signals using their networks. The NCI/Navio service will offer personalized interactive content, such as news, sports scores, stock tickers, electronic programming guides, electronic games and chat rooms, while watching regular television broadcast. Internet access and some content will be provided by NetChannel at first. It is not clear yet whether or not other service providers will be able to provide service. However, WebTV appears to be one step ahead of NCI/Navio and its partners. The Sony and Philips-manufactured WebTV boxes feature a 1.7 Gbps expansion port that can be used to support cable modems or satellite connection. Perlman refused to elaborate on the company’s plans for peripherals beyond the printer support added earlier this year. He said users of the initial RCA boxes are going to be disappointed as the NCI software does not support such things as RealAudio, JavaScript, sound and other multimedia features that WebTV believes TV users expect from the web. Limp retaliated by acknowledging that although the initial software shipping with the first generation RCA box doesn’t support JavaScript, RealAudio is supported and the combined Navio and NCI software will have support for Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) as well as JavaScript. NCI promised that software would ship before the year-end. It will be downloaded to users’ machines through their service provider. The Navio technology that Oracle acquired for NCI from Netscape turns out to be more than just a slimmed-down version of the Navigator browser. It features the browser, a set of APIs, so that content providers can write applications specifically for it and an image processing engine called IQView. NCI says Enhanced TV, will be based on open standards such as Java and HTML-TV. It turns out HTML-TV is a Navio idea it dubs tv:, aping the http: that standard HTML uses. It will enable content providers to for example, add a tag to a program guide so that when a user clicks on a channel, the TV changes to that channel in the background. However it is not yet open and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) hasn’t seen it, though Limp said the company would be submitting to a standards body in the very near future. These features seem to be crucial if the company is going to catch up with WebTV’s platform, although as Limp said, WebTV did have an 18 months’ head start on NCI. More than that in fact, if you consider Perlman was producing white papers on similar subjects at Apple Computer Inc – he noted that some of the Navio employees worked for him at Apple. Perlman insists the synchronizing of TV signals with web content is nothing new and not difficult, although so far picture-in-picture technology is all that can be done with those TVs that support it. But it’s early days. WebTV claims 120,000 users right now. In response to concerns that WebTV’s new owner, Microsoft Corp is going to impose a Windows-like interface in the simple WebTV interface, Perlman was adamant. Users will not see Windows CE as such; it will just be a set of APIs for programmers to write to, enabling games and other software to be written for the WebTV platform. Meanwhile, NCI, now with 180 employees, will move to a new headquarters in Redwood Shores, California.

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CBR Staff Writer

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