How will people interact with their TVs? For now, pretty much the way they interact with their PCs, suggests Jeff Huber, vice president of engineering for Excite@Home (ATHM) - Get Report.

In a prelude to an expected rollout of interactive TV in the second half of the year, Huber has been demonstrating Excite@Home's version of what it calls Advanced TV -- a two-way service that cable operators can use to deliver the information highway to subscribers' TV sets. But since Excite@Home doesn't have any interactive TV shows to show, the services it delivers are basically the same as what people are getting on their PC.

Excite@Home's belief that people want to interact with their TV -- minus a demonstration of what an interactive TV show is -- illustrates the challenges of mapping the future of TV/PC convergence. Throughout the industry, participants assume that high-speed Internet connections to the home will make TV more like the PC and vice versa; the problem is that when this convergence will arrive, what it will look like and whether consumers will be interested in it, are all up in the air.

Distance Learning

What Excite@Home has to show for itself now is a collection of services that are already available on the PC or TV. In addition to using the TV to watch broadcast TV, viewers can browse an electronic program guide to TV shows, order a pizza from an online mall, visit different Web sites, and read and write email. Although the ATV has its nice touches -- for example, as users stray from watching TV shows, they can see the ghost of the TV picture superimposed on what's onscreen -- that pizza-ordering demonstration has been trotted out for a decade by different proponents of interactive TV, with little change in the pizza-ordering habits of the nation. And the demonstration is no different from services they can get right now from their own computer or from


(MSFT) - Get Report


TV-specific content will come later. "There'll be interesting things we'll be showing over the next few months," Huber says. But someone else will have to produced interactive



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. "We're the enabler and the infrastructure provider. We're not the

Discovery Channel

. ... We're not the content provider."

Given that people who have this high-speed connection to their TV will also have a broadband connection to their PC, a question arises: If people can get mail or surf the Web on a household PC a few steps away, why should Excite@Home presume they want to do it on their TV, where the process is much more awkward? Well, that's what people have told Excite@Home they want, says Huber; they have an insatiable appetite for information, entertainment, and to a lesser extent, education. "There's a difference between having that instantly at your fingertips and 20 feet away," he says.

Priced for Perfection?

How much will they pay for this? Huber puts it in the context of what he calls advanced digital set-top boxes, or the digital cable boxes, which Excite@Home believes will start rolling out aggressively in the second half of the year. Throw together a package of basic cable, additional basic channels requiring the rental of the advanced digital boxes, premium TV channels, @Home high-speed Internet service to the PC and the Advanced TV service (priced at perhaps $14.95 a month) and you end up with a package costing $70-$80 a month. Expect to see cable operators bundle all that at $50-$60 a month. That's a "very compelling value," Huber says. "You're getting a tremendous amount for that."

And finally, when will all this arrive? Excite@Home expects trials in the second and third quarters of ths year; beyond that, it depends upon the pace at which operators roll out installation of advanced digital boxes made by companies such as



General Instrument

. Huber is hopeful that 5 million of these boxes can be delivered over 24 months. By 2005, he expects, at least 20 million of these boxes will be in place.

Broadband to the home will be as big a leap forward for TV as was the introduction of color in 1954, Huber says; it will make TV not just the central entertainment device of the home, but the central information device as well.

Unfortunately, statistics once circulated by the manufacturer of


TVs indicate that a decade after color's introduction, only 5% of American households had a color set. It took 20 years after color debuted for 50% of households to buy a color set. Huber and others are hoping things will move at Internet speed this time around.