Not anymore. Companies small and large are rushing to market a wild array of new devices that aim to make Internet connections more ubiquitous and affordable. They hope to turn televisions into terminals and terminals into televisions, video cassette recorders into disk drives and telephones into e-mail centers, door locks into home security systems and elementary schools into Internet service providers. Will these technological crossovers open the next great wave in the expansion of the Net--or simply add fresh kill to the heap of failed Internet business models?
Among those seeking an answer, all eyes are on WebTV, a Palo Alto, Calif. startup company. In November 1996, WebTV began selling $320 boxes that, once plugged into a telephone line and a television, transforms the TV into an Internet box. The device allows viewers to surf the Web using only a remote control, although an optional wireless keyboard can be purchased for typing e-mail messages. Simplicity does not necessarily translate into sales, however. Despite bullish press coverage and an estimated $62 million advertising campaign, WebTV reportedly sold only 30,000 units during the Christmas shopping season--not nearly enough to pay for the ads. Company officials have said that sales have since picked up, but because the firm is privately held, no reliable figures have been made public.
WebTV will not have much time to win consumer acceptance before it faces competition. Zenith Electronics and others are readying their own set-top boxes for release later this year. All will, like WebTV, require customers to pay $20 per month for Internet service. And all will suffer from the same slow modem speeds that can make netsurfing confusing and frustrating even for the technically savvy.
Beyond the technological limitations is the question of how many couch potatoes really want to sit in front of the tube to wait tens of seconds for text to fill the screen. En Technology of Milford, N. H., is betting on a system that caters to shorter attention spans. In February, the company began taking orders for TVModems, $150 PC expansion cards that can receive broadcast or cable television signals and extract data encoded in them. The idea is that viewers will tune in to special programs on their computers and receive free software, Web pages and other goodies as they watch.
The data for the TVModems can be encoded either in the vertical blanking interval between television broadcast frames (at rates of up to 125 kilobits per second) or as a snow-filled picture (at up to 2.3 megabits per second). Each bit is sent three times to help correct the inevitable errors that occur during transmission. En Technology is currently testing the system with a program called The Internet Cafe, which airs on more than 50 PBS stations throughout the U.S. One side benefit of transmitting data this way is that it can be recorded by any videocassette recorder for later playback. But currently En's system, like television, sends data just one way, from the broadcaster to the viewer; it is not a true Internet connection.
Building Internet capabilities into another common electronic appliance, Navitel Communications of Menlo Park is preparing to launch a product it calls a TouchPhone. Enhanced with an LCD screen, a slide-out keyboard and a computer processor running a slimmed-down version of Microsoft Windows, the phone stays in constant connection with the Net through a built-in modem, so it receives e-mail as easily as voice mail. Of course, voice mail does not appeal to everybody, and it remains to be seen whether transforming a telephone into a combined e-mail terminal, Web browser, calendar, address book and phone obliterates the telephone's most winning attribute: its ease of use.
But why stop at a telephone? National Semiconductor, expanding upon work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, is designing a sub-processor--a few square millimeters of transistors etched alongside a larger computer chip--that will contain all the electronics needed for a device to register itself with, and communicate over, the Internet. Adding only a few dollars to the price of other chips, the module could place an Internet connection in everything from toasters and clock radios to televisions and air conditioners, says W. Shields Neely, an engineer at National Semiconductor. "You could imagine a wristwatch with a radio connection to receive e-mail," he speculates.
The scheme has its problems. One is addressing: how does a wristwatch register its location so that any computer with a message for you knows where to send it? "Down from that there are security issues," Neely notes. "I would like to be able to send an e-mail to my front-door lock to let somebody in. But that obviously would require a high degree of security," and Internet devices are currently too easy to fool. And then there is the matter of finding an appropriate communication medium. Within a home, devices might communicate using infrared beacons or signals sent along the household electrical wiring. Few standards exist for such networks, however. Across longer distances, data would have to be sent by radio--and the government places severe restrictions on private radio transmissions.
Or it did, until January 1997, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set aside 300 megahertz of high-frequency spectrum for unlicensed high-speed data communications. That decision allows anyone, from schools to supermarkets, to set up wireless networks up to tens of kilometers in size without paying a company fees for installation and air-time. Although any communications protocol can be used, the FCC expects most users will make their data/radio stations extensions of the Internet, broadcasting and receiving packets in the same form used on the Net.
The FCC notice did not mention how the agency intends to deal with a new generation of hackers who, armed with the data equivalent of scanners, will soon be able to pull confidential e-mail and credit card numbers literally out of thin air. Who would like to be the first to put his or her household online?