Microsoft has unveiled its vision of how Windows technology will make television more interactive. But relax - TVs won't crash three times a day.
The Microsoft TV platform is the company’s successor to WebTV, which was never launched in the UK. It’s made up of four software packages, two of them designed for use with your TV set.
Consumers can use Microsoft TV Basic Digital, which will work on today's set-top boxes; it runs applications like chat and e-mail. The more powerful Microsoft TV Advanced will give the next generation of boxes more capabilities. The other two packages will only be used by cable or satellite companies. They include the Windows 2000-based back-end Microsoft TV Server, and the Microsoft TV Access Channel Server.
Will Microsoft TV matter with companies like OpenTV already providing fully implemented interactive TV technology? Only if interactive TV takes off, and if Microsoft becomes a major player.
Industry observers have talked about interactive television for years, but its success is hardly a given. Current offerings, which let some subscribers play along with Jeopardy or research The Weather Channel, haven't caught fire.
Nor did WebTV, which was trialled in the UK but dropped in favour of the Open-style Microsoft TV platform. Some reasons have more to do with furniture than technology. As Gartner Group analyst Chris LeTocq points out, "It's clear that a TV that's 12 feet away isn't the same [experience] as Windows."
Interactive TV needs the holy grail of consumer technology: the killer app. It's that one program that everyone suddenly needs. But no one's sure what that will be, or how it will appeal to people who already know what they want from that big box in the living room.
The winner will probably add to the existing television experience. One such product (which runs on Microsoft TV) is Chat on Television. It's by a company with the unlikely name of The Kiss Principle. Through it, you can chat with other viewers while watching a program, commenting on what you see. You can discuss the show publicly with every viewer running Chat on Television, or in private groups with friends. Public chat, like TV itself, is censored.
Unlike with PCs, Microsoft is not calling the shots with interactive TV.
The Kiss Principle, for example, isn't betting entirely on Microsoft TV. Its programs also support a set-top operating system from OpenTV. Also on the way is Java TV from Sun.
But Redmond is working long and hard on this platform. And Microsoft has some real advantages: deep pockets, a reputation for setting standards, and a history of success.
Gartner Group's LeTocq believes that Microsoft sets "a target standard that developers can aim at."
Microsoft is delivering better technology, says Dr. Steven Ericsson-Zenith, CEO of The Kiss Principle. Although his company is designing set-top software for several platforms, Ericsson-Zenith believes Microsoft TV is the "stronger platform for developing real applications. The others are fine if you just want to do the simple stuff."
But the contest isn't over yet. In this market, at least, there's still plenty of competition. And the market itself still needs to be found.