The dream of the living-room presence keeps many a software executive awake at night, with visions of untold riches of consumer money going straight to the telephone and software industry coffers. Before packing up and moving to Namibia, where (for now, at least) no software giant will be able to invade my sofa-zone, I decided to check on the details of the "enhanced" WebTV project. A visit to the BT Web site didn't bring even a glimpse of information. Instead I was exposed to graphic design aimed at my four-year-old nephew, with jolly use of primary colours and nursery-like icons. If this is the future look and feel of our interactive TV, get ready for Lion King aesthetics.
There was no word about the project on the WebTV home page, either. Obviously they are too busy building televisions of the future to bother with updates to a boring old Web site. However, I found a template that the helpful boys from WebTV designed to show how to create sites for prime-time TV shows - a one-page, three-button-based design looking like a kiosk from hell - BT Touchpoint, circa 1987. Hardly inspiring, but then Microsoft and BT have unconvincing credentials for a project that could bring the biggest information revolution into our homes since the founding of the BBC.
Microsoft has made its money from business-zone applications: Word, Excel and Powerpoint were made for trained office users. This focus on the business audience has resulted in interfaces that look dull and are difficult to use, as (guess what?) software training is yet another revenue stream for Gates & Co. Add to this the excessive complexity (when was the last time you used more than one font on your letters or more than two PowerPoint templates?) and obscure installation procedures and you have a recipe for living-room disaster.
Some of us actually enjoy spending Sunday afternoons pottering around Windows 98 beta and troubleshooting driver problems, but I have great difficulty imagining my Mum doing that instead of gardening. Microsoft, thanks to its business-oriented tradition, is not ready for prime-time viewing, and if WebTV's templates are anything to go by, the young Californian company hasn't quite understood that the medium is the message and "enhanced TV" will need to be reinvented and not just reformatted from old Web sites. Putting radio programmes on TV didn't bring millions of viewers to the medium. So reformatting Web pages is not going to make me buy a shiny set-top box.
So what is the killer application for interactive TV? And if there are no any obvious ones on the multimedia horizon, aren't we barking up the wrong interactive tree? Do we really think that the consumer is going to shell out pounds 250 just to watch hypertext sports results on top of his "enhanced" football game?
The purchase of a computer for the home makes economic sense, as it allows you to save money by buying cheaper airline tickets, books, clothing and music online. There are plenty of online retailers that are easy to use, reliable, and therefore ready for prime time. All the consumers at home need is simple access to those shops, and all they require is a cheap and easy-to-use computer. There are also hundreds of excellent educational CD-Rom titles for children, and a lot of helpful Web sites that make homework fun instead of tedium. This is the content that each parent in the country would like to give their children access to.
The need for "enhanced TV" is a myth perpetuated by technology executives who lust after home users but who fail to understand that education and information are still the main reasons why consumers want useful home interactivity. It is not just the difficult ergonomics of writing your e-mail while lying on the sofa. It is the TV screen that, even with electronic programming guides and hypertext links to the football results, is not going to make a leap to the 21st century because the TV monitor is a dog, probably the oldest piece of technology in your household apart from the lightbulb. Re-engineering TV monitors will be like teaching an elephant to dance. The TV screen hates vertical lines, as it wasn't designed for displaying tables. They also have funny ideas about colours, and for still pictures their pallet is akin to a colour-blind person on drugs.
There isn't much that can be done about these problems, so let's just bury the TV monitor and get on with producing what the consumer really wants - a cheap and easy computer with a fast modem and a simple installation process. We are almost there as far as price goes. Today you can get a Pentium 166 PC with speakers, CD-Rom drive and monitor for under pounds 450. That is not far from the price of a good TV. The ease of use is not there yet, and considering their past efforts, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Microsoft to tackle that issue.
If I were writing a spec for a home computer, I would look for a company that has a home consumer- and education-oriented culture, a history of understanding personal technology, that has experience in Mum-proof interface design, that understands the need to make things easy and fun, but also compatible across any file format and any platform people might come up with in the future.
Well, there is a company like that. If you want something complex to be made simple, you don't call a plumber (BT) and you don't go to your accountant (Microsoft), but seek someone who has helped you before and made those awful DOS systems go away. Apple holds all the keys to the puzzle, from its recent success with QuickTime as the new multimedia standard, to years of visionary hardware developments. The success of its e-mate demonstrated that there is still a great talent lurking around Apple's corridors. Let's stop wasting time and send that spec where consumers are likely to be understood and where our stupidity is met with kindness of design and not error messages.