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Set-top box: vision of the future

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A revolution in a box should transform horne- based technology. writes John Henderson.

be personal computer is being

given a run for its megabytes with

the development of the set-top box. Designed to sit next to your TV. it will allow you to access the Internet. do a little home shopping and possibly subscribe to video on demand. Its price will be comparable to the top of the range games consoles. and although several companies are involved in this potential consumer revolution. they are all taking different paths.

The easiest distinction that can be drawn between the various types of set- top box is that some will be in direct competition with the home PC. while others will offer services far beyond the capabilities of present computers. Rob Henderson. manager of Edinburgh Internet cafe Electric Frog. sees a pattern behind the development of the set-top box. ‘It‘s all a big ploy by the computer manufacturers to try and reduce the stranglehold that Microsoft have on the desk-top PC market. About 90 per cent of all PCs sold have some form of Windows software.' As a result. the majority of Internet access is controlled by that king of all nerds. Microsoft‘s founder Bill Gates.

Other companies want a piece of the Internet action. Among those developing set-top boxes are Apple. Sega and Philips. In America. you can already hook your Sega Saturn up to the Net with a modem package costing less than $200. and there are ruruours

that the Sony Playstation is set to follow the same route. Apple has created a box called the Pippin. which it hopes will become the industry standard. although the company 's lack of success in marketing the Macintosh does not bode well for it. The Philips option is little more than an addition to the ill-fated CD-i.

Henderson warns there could be problems with using the set-top box. which relies on the telephone wire that

comes into your house. ‘The state of

communication lines available at the moment means they perform so slowly that for the foreseeable future they won't take over from the PC market.‘ The alternative type of set-top box is more revolutionary. ()nline Media. a British company based in Cambridge. is currently testing a system that allows for truly interactive television. At present the company utilises the cable network coupled with advanced

technology to permit a much faster

distribution of data. The thinking behind it. as Kevin Coleman explains. is a little more broad-minded: ‘You

require a whole different range of

services to what you currently see on the Internet. The integration of the Internet with interactive TV is just one ofthe things we do.‘ The system allows for video on demand. extensive home shopping with companies like Tesco. and all manner of educational services. Coleman does not see his system in competition with I’Cs. although he admits a consumer market for such a system is still live to eight years away.

Meanwhile. we are faced with a waiting game. The simpler set-top boxes to be released over the next year will allow for Internet access via a modem on your TV. but little else. The more advanced creations might indeed be the revolution they are heralded as. but they do need more time and a better communications infrastructure before they becotne viable. Just don't be in a rush to get connected.

fA brief history of television}


l 1925 John Logic Baird demonstrates | , the tirst TV. : t 1928 The US begins experimental I ' broadcasting. : I 1932 Regular TV output in Britain. I : 1949 First cable TV service : I introduced in Oregon. I : 1951 Colour TV launched in the US. : | 1957 Colour TV introduced in the UK. | I 1959 First VCR. : i 1982 First camcorder. l I 1990 First trials of set-top boxes in : | Canada. .


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John Henderson surfs the results of the first UK Web Awards.

The winners ofthe inaugural UK Web Awards. sponsored by Yell and .ne! magazine. have been announced. The overall victor. with ‘the hottest site on the net‘. was the Internet edition of The Times newspaper ( Launched at the beginning of this year. the site has already picked up a quarter of a million registered users from around the world. The complete content of the newspaper is online. along with various works of reference like the Rich 500. The electronic edition was praised for its ease of use. rapid update and elegant design.

At the opposite end of the scale. the award for the best personal contribution to the Web went to Emlyn Harris for a collection of stories based around Highgate cemetery ( A little creativity in cyberspace can only be a good thing. and anyone planning their own home page should check out Harris's site.

Diesel Jeans picked up a gong for best design, with a site based around the idea ofa hotel ( The different levels of boutiques. discos and cinemas may not have been the most innovative idea. but the kitsch execution and animation are worth a peek.

Not surprisingly. Conde Nast scooped the award for the best commercial pages ( Their site perfectly mirrors their magazines‘ high production values. and. as well as providing distillations of their hard copy publications. they have thrown in restaurant guides. travel information and financial advice just for good measure.

One World was judged best non- commercial creation for its vast collection of environmental and human rights data (http://www.onoworld.orgl). while the readers' choice went to rock group Queen ( Perhaps that last award says more about the readers of .ner magazine than it does about the site itself. You

can be the best judge of that.