The PC giants are digging their heels in over future standards for digital television, reports John Abbott.
It’s been a busy week for those interested in the convergence of personal computer and television technology. Yesterday, things moved on a stage further as representatives from the so called Digital TV Team, currently consisting of Compaq Computer Corp, Intel Corp and Microsoft Corp, got up at the WinHEC Windows Hardware Engineering Conference and proposed that the DTV Digital TeleVision format they announced earlier in the week be included in the new PC ’98 specifications. Every year, the personal computer industry gathers at WinHEC to agree on base level de facto standards for next year’s personal computers. Although recommendations are voluntary, in practice they are taken up by just about everybody. And if Compaq, Intel and Microsoft are backing the proposals, then so must everyone else. Not supporting the move, crucially enough, is the television industry. Instead they are following the so-called Grand Alliance proposals from a year ago, which have evolved slowly from 13 years of high definition television discussions. The Grand Alliance includes all the television manufacturers, and has had technical input from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but the lead player has been Sony Corp. The Alliance backs a specification from the ATSC Advanced Television Systems Committee, using MPEG 2 and 18 digital formats to be decoded by television sets. Compaq, Intel and Microsoft believe these are both too complex and not flexible enough to take future technological developments into account, and are likely to lead to early obsolescence. They propose instead a subset of the Advanced Television Systems Committee formats favoring the progressive scan displays used by computer monitors in preference to the interlaced scan used by televisions, which cause the familiar flicker of television screens when seen close up. The Digital TeleVision formats also favor the bigger picture 16 times 9 screen ratio, higher resolutions without the necessity for huge displays, and better sound. And they leave room in the broadcast signal for the transmission of additional data broadcasting that would enable supplementary information to be supplied in real time to supplement television broadcasts. The choice of technologies reflects the different priorities of the two camps. Interlaced displays are best, according to the television side of the argument, for the more unpredictable conditions of live broadcasting, where light sources can be variable. Progressive scanning works well for film, but more importantly for the computer camp, is far better at handling the static video images such as text, typically found in computing applications and Web pages. If proof of this were needed, it can be found in Microsoft Corp’s timely purchase of WebTV Networks Inc earlier this week (CI No 3,135), accompanied by many qualifying remarks about the current limitations of its technology. For WebTV has to alter significantly the Web pages it offers television viewers in order to make them acceptable for viewing on current televisions. Small text and detailed images must be enlarged and simplified, making the pages highly reminiscent of the original personal computer displays from the early 1980s. WebTV is on the right vector says Bob Stearns, Compaq’s senior vice president of technology and corporate development, Bob Stearns, but it’s not yet ready for prime time. While opposition from the television industry looks like a formidable obstacle to its ambitions, the Digital TV Team believes itself to be in a very strong position, strong enough for the WinHEC conference to agree that PC 98 will only decode the DTV formats, not others in the Advanced Television Systems Committee standard. Just look at the numbers, says Stearns. The first digital televisions will hit the market next year, and the television industry’s own projections have it that 1million will be shipped over the following five years. In that same time period, up to 40 million personal computers are likely to be sold to the consumer end of the market, all including DTV support. Compaq says it will produce complete systems that will adhere to the PC 98 digital video standards and intends to produce TV/PCs that combine the best features of both television and PC entertainment. Microsoft has committed to provide operating system software support for the specifications, and Intel is producing subsystems that conform to the specifications. There is also the cost aspect to be considered. Traditional digital televisions will need display devices capable of resolving 1,080 times 1,920 lines of resolution, and will need to be large in order to show off their higher resolution images, while personal computer screens ranging from 13 to 54 will be capable of displaying the DTV alternative. Overall, research firm Economics & Technology Inc calculates that an Advanced Television Systems Committee-specified television set will cost around $2,500, while the costs for a Digital TeleVision-specified set will range from $270 at the low end to $2,250 at the high end. Putting aside the usual is Microsoft trying to take over the world? arguments, the DTV case looks compelling even from the television industry’s side of the fence. And many television manufacturers, such as Sony Corp, Toshiba Corp, Sharp Corp and Hitachi Ltd for instance, also make personal computers. Don’t they see the potential benefits? Observers say these companies don’t have a universal strategy and exhibit schizophrenic characteristics between their operations. Compaq’s Bob Stearns also points out that the company with the most to lose is Sony, which is already working on a range of related digital consumer products, including cameras to fit around the Advanced Television Systems Committee standard. Sony has tried before to push for standardization through market acceptance of its products, and in the notorious cases of Betamax and the MiniDisk, it failed. But however compelling the arguments, Compaq, Intel and Microsoft will ultimately need to win support from both the television industry and the broadcasters if they are to succeed. It is a huge opportunity, with 150 million televisions in the US alone needing to be replaced over the next 15 years, and many more in Europe and Japan, where it’s likely that the same set of standards will ultimately be settled on. But without support from broadcasters, there will be no digital content for the proposed DTV formats supported by the new personal computers. As a sulky spokesman from the National Association of Broadcasters told The Wall Street Journal earlier this week: Just because Microsoft would do it a different way doesn’t mean we have to go along. They can buy their own TV stations and do their own formatting. That, of course, might just be an option.