Switch on to WebTV: another great leap forward for Bill Gates?

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Why did Microsoft buy WebTV this summer? Jack Kenny in Seattle looks at the battle between the computer and TV industries

The important announcement from Microsoft over the summer months was not its investment in Apple but its buy-out of WebTV Networks, news of which was overshadowed by the Apple announcement. It cost Microsoft $425 million (Pounds 264 million). This is thought to be the largest amount ever paid out by the company and is the clearest indicator of its future direction. Bill Gates does make mistakes - he was slow to the Internet - but not $425 million mistakes.

There is a battle going on in the US between the television and computer industries. Television has won the preliminary rounds, but it is unlikely to win the contest.

Will the computer turn into a television or will the television turn into a computer? And what does all this mean for education and learning? It means that we have to spend more time teaching about the media. It means that we have to realise that information technology is about a great deal more than word-processing, databases and spreadsheets. We have spent far too much time treating IT as a rather cold analytical tool. The evolution is making it more than that. Not for nothing have people started to talk about ICT (information and communications technology) rather than IT.

In 1988 HDTV (High definition television) was announced for Japan and Europe, and it looked as though television standards were decided for the early part of the next century and that the US would be an onlooker. Nearly 10 years later HDTV is rarely mentioned and the US is ready to launch digital television.

A wise person once said that the trouble with US television was not that there was too much but that there was not enough. Digital should answer that. The picture quality will eventually be superb, the choice will be vast, and potentially what you will be able to do with this televisioncomputer will astound: television, interactive television, information sources, e-mail, the vast World Wide Web. It will be a computer, but it will look more like a television. People understand television. It will happen in the US and in Britain. Some time in the next 15 years all existing television transmissions will become digital. Everyone will have a computer.

The purchase of WebTV has been one of the first steps in Microsoft's strategy to dominate what will be a new market. Rick Rashid and his research team at Microsoft are developing software to make interaction with the new technology simple. Super-browsers will be needed for the new television-computers.

The interesting thing about a visit to Microsoft at Redmond, Seattle, is not what is there, but what is about to be built. The construction cranes hover over the site ready to build the next phase. The Microsoft Campus looks rather like a business park in Milton Keynes, full of anonymous buildings with imaginative names such as Building 27. What comes next could well have an impact on what happens in schools.

The next version of Windows, Windows98, expected in the spring, will have the Explorer browser built in and you will be able to browse your hard disc in the same way that you browse the Internet. Microsoft has insisted that Explorer must be the browser that Apple defaults to in its new Microsoft incarnation.

The company is already deeply into the production of multimedia materials and it was interesting to see how much was produced on site - darkened rooms containing graphic artists pecking relentlessly at pixels to get perfection. The recording studios had recently been occupied by BB King. Interestingly, the rooms in that part of the complex were more imaginatively titled than the buildings: Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk, Jimi Hendrix. Most of the special effects are still being produced on Apple computers, but the users do not see that continuing for long.

The concentration on the Internet is intensive. Microsoft's WebTV studio could be the one to bring the Internet to the majority of people. The thinkers at Microsoft know that the complexities of the computer are going to be a barrier to millions of people. What they want is something like a remote control. WebTV is their way forward. It could bring the richness of the Web to television, already installed in millions of homes.

Microsoft is already working with television. Time was when the familiar NBC logo accompanied news broadcasts - now the MS-NBC logo comes up on screens all across the United States.

There are considerable dangers. Bill Gates could well end up making other media giants look like the owners of provincial newspapers. The Internet has proved itself such a multi-tentacled beast that even Gates will not be able to contain it. The commercialisation and the trivialisation of the Internet are already happening.

However, there will be considerable benefits. The gap between the information haves and have-nots should be reduced because presumably the Internet will become as accessible as any other television station. Did we ever need a government programme to get television into schools? Which of the have-nots does not have access to television? The problem is not that people will lack access but that they will have access and will not know how to use it.

Microsoft is a very aggressive organisation, very realistic. It is recruiting some of the best brains in the world. The liberality of the company towards education in recent years has been marked, and the tools that it has provided - either free or at special rates - have been first class. It could well be that the key for our students to understanding and feeling comfortable in the world of the future will come out of using the range of tools that are on offer.

However, the overwhelming deluge of ideas expected in the next few years will either enrich or bewilder. It is up to us to find ways to help students through this period. By looking at the way that a company such as Microsoft changes to thrive in the new information environment we should be able to find signs that we can use to plan a way forward.

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