From PC to TV at the press of a button

ICL says its PCTV will revolutionise the multimedia market. But is it just an expensive television? David Bowen explains
ICL, once the flag-carrier for the British computer industry and now a subsidiary of Fujitsu of Japan, has been doing remarkably well during the past few years. By sticking to specialist products such as point- of-sale equipment, it has stayed in profit while other European makers have gone into the red.

Now, however, ICL has decided to plunge into the choppy waters of personal computers, because it feels the action for the next few year will be in consumer-driven multimedia, rather than in devices for business. Its PCs will be branded Fujitsu-ICL (people trust Jap-anese-tagged gizmos, apparently), and it is certain to make the biggest splash - if not the most money - with Europe's first combined PC and television.

If the information superhighway is about technologies converging, putting a television and a PC in the same box seems an obvious step. Why has it not been done before? Mainly because it is technically tricky - televisions are analogue (they work on continuous wavy signals), while computers are digital (they use varying discreet signals). It is possible to add a card that will provide a television window on a computer screen, but the quality is never brilliant.

The PCTV uses its considerable processing power to take the analogue signal, digitise it and then display it on the PC monitor. From a brief viewing, it seems to do the trick.

Having cracked that problem, ICL has been busy cramming its new toy with goodies. Fire up the computer, and you are shown a picture of a room called the Den, which is in fact the anteroom to myriad devices. Click the mouse on the telly in the Den, and you get the telly in real life. It has teletext with a difference, for the computer can automatically update your favourite Ceefax pages.

Click on the hi-fi, and get a picture of a hi-fi. Load a music CD, click on the "buttons" on the screen, and you get music. ICL claims its seven watts-a-side amplifier and 12-watt speakers provide hi-fi sound: that depends on your definition of hi-fi.

Click on the games cupboard, and you can choose which CD-rom you want (the PCTV comes equipped with three). Then, of course, there is the computer itself. This has Windows and the usual software. It does not yet have a card that allows you to watch video CDs, but that will come; so will built-in software that offers access to the Internet.

You can even control the mouse with the remote control, which leads to the key question. Is this not technology gone mad, technology for the sake of it? The PCTV will cost about £1,500 when it hits the shelves at the end of April. ICL says that is what you would pay for a powerful multimedia computer on its own. Others would say it is a very expensive television.

ICL's market research suggests young families will buy it as a second set, for kids to use as a television and the whole family to use as a computer. But what if both "sides" want to use it at the same time? Where do you put it? How far away from it do you sit? The PCTV will either set the consumer market alight, or become the next Christmas turkey. Watch this space.

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