Intel’s new vision

Set-top computers to bridge digital TV gap

Chip-making behemoth Intel Corp. may be readying itself for primetime in the upcoming digital TV revolution — in a new program that doesn’t leave much room for its former partners, Microsoft Corp. and Compaq Computer Inc.

Intel execs last week unveiled an entire line of “set-top computers” that not only will allow analog TV owners a way into the federally mandated digital TV paradise but also will do it using the broadcasters’ preferred digital format.

Friction factor

It’s this last stance that may well drive a wedge between Intel on the one hand and Microsoft and Compaq on the other. Earlier this year the troika had come out strongly in favor of using the computer industry’s method of beaming images onto the screen — the “progressive” method rather than the “interlaced” one favored by broadcasters.

But Intel is talking interlaced now. The company, with 1997 year-to-date revenues of $11 billion, can well afford to develop along several parallel lines if one of them is embraced by broadcasters and, by extension, consumers.

The new thinking was epitomized by Intel senior VP/content group head Ron Whittier, who noted that Intel’s once-holy “war for eyeballs” has become “a war for a non-existent market.”

100% access

Whittier noted that, via digital TV, Intel can gain access to 100% of U.S. homes (which sport at least one TV set) rather than just 40% (which have a PC).

Intel’s current generation of set-top boxes will allow users to hold onto their old TVs and still use them for digital TV purposes — surfing the Internet, sending and receiving e-mail, watching TV (especially after broadcasters begin beaming digital TV signals, as the Federal Communications Commission says they must do starting next year), or any combination thereof.

Needless to say, Intel isn’t the only set-top maker out there. Microsoft division WebTV already makes and sells such devices, as does Network Computer Inc., a division of Microsoft archrival Oracle Corp.

But like its software alter-ego Microsoft, anything Intel sets its mind on doing well, it usually winds up dominating: central processing units for computers, chip sets for computer main boards and hybrid processor/video regulation cards for computers.

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