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Take a small black box, plug it into a television and telephone line and within moments you can send and receive email, access Internet sites and create web pages on your TV screen. Welcome to the brave new world of Microsoft's WebTV, a TV-Internet system controlled by a remote control handset or a wireless keyboard.
Launched in the US, Canada and Japan, WebTV has over 800,000 subscribers, about 50,000 of which are believed to be schools and colleges. It has also been tested in London and Liverpool with encouraging results, but Microsoft will not say if it has firm plans to launch WebTV in the UK.
Microsoft is not surprised by the high take-up among schools - it believes the service is an ideal format for education. "It's a low-cost, easy-to-use service," explains Jim Vetter, WebTV's education business manager. "It's also a zero-maintenance option. You don't have to buy software upgrades and there's no need to open the box and add more memory. Any changes or updates are sent to the box via the Internet connection."
There are two types of WebTV service, Classic and Plus, with the latter also offering interactive TV services, such as TV programmes with links to websites or pages. Both services provide email facilities, and a printer port lets users produce hard copies of emails or web pages. Another popular feature is Page Builder, which lets users create web pages on their TV screen and then publish them on the WebTV site. Users can select different page backgrounds, add text and even include pictures by linking a camcorder or digital camera to a built-in video port on the WebTV box.
TV programmes arrive via an aerial, cable or satellite link, but all Internet content is sent and received through a telephone modem (all WebTV boxes have a built-in 56K modem). As WebTV uses a dial-up connection, the system cannot be networked, but a class set of 15 of the most basic WebTV boxes could be bought for roughly the same price as a single powerful multimedia PC. Microsoft says parents and children can set up WebTV boxes without training, and the price of the boxes (from around pound;66) makes it feasible to set up a library lending scheme for children without a home PC - in the US, 50 per cent of homes have a PC, in the UK, it's around 25 per cent.
Better still, the service is relatively cheap: schools can subscribe to the Internet service for around pound;15 a month and educational discounts are available for 15 or more subscriptions. And if a school uses its own Internet service provider, the price falls to pound;8 a month. The WebTV service is filtered and includes an "education portal," a list of educational sites including homework help sites for pupils, classroom resources for teachers and advisory sites for parents.
Other benefits of the system are being pioneered by Barry University and Miami Dade County Public Schools. With support from Sony, they are using WebTV as part of a five-year project to help children of migrant farm workers catch up with their education. A special educational website has been set up and 100 migrant families have WebTV boxes in order to access the site at home.
But Jim Vetter stresses that WebTV is not a replacement for the PC: "You can use spreadsheets on a computer, but you can't on a WebTV. Its aim is to provide low-cost access to the Internet," he says.