Fear and downloading in Las Vegas

Digital Convergence may soon give TV viewers totalcontrol, at least that's the theory
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THE SIDEWALK was hotter than a Pentium III as Islid out of Vegas airport and edged over to a waiting taxi. The frames of myshades were hot, the cab's door handle was hot, the driver wasJamal.

THE SIDEWALK was hotter than a Pentium III as Islid out of Vegas airport and edged over to a waiting taxi. The frames of myshades were hot, the cab's door handle was hot, the driver wasJamal.

"Where to?" he growled.

"NAB Convention.Sands Expo Center," I shot back at him.

"Traffic's gonna bebad," he said. "Nerd traffic is always bad."

I let theinsult lie there and pulled out the programme for the National Association ofBroadcasters' annual conference.

Digital Convergence is back intown, said the programme. I stopped as if I'd been hit with a21-inch CRT. Digital Convergence had died back in the early Nineties,the victim of a bunch of flim-flam artists who said everything, includingTV, was going to go digital on the information superhighway.

The onlyproblem was that the info superhighway looked more like the digital driveway.Expensive phone connections, slow modems, and even slower governmentregulators made quick work out of the Digital Convergence guys. Those losershad said we'd have small, wireless digital appliances forinformation, and would use the TV for stuff like shopping. What a load ofhypertext.

I had to get to the bottom of this. I checked the e-mailinbox on my cellphone - just the usual spam. I checked my voice mail- nothing important. I called the office and left a message that I wasgoing to need help on this one. Then I left a message for a certain blonde inSan Francisco - personal stuff, none of your business.

Jamal wasbusy cutting off a Microsoft bus when I spotted the clue right there in theprogram: Larry Ellison was in town, and he was going to squeal. I hadto be there at 5pm in a back room at the Sands.

This was the break Ineeded. I paid Jamal and went into the NAB multimedia pavilion, where Iblended into a sea of nerds. The big boys were pushing some hot goods:QuickTime 4, Microsoft Media Technologies, Real Networks G2 and some fastnew software called Final Cut, but I stayed in the background.

Some ofEllison's boys had some action going. They were showing 105 simultaneousprograms coming off a single server the size of a Silicon Valley mortgagepayment.

"A hundred and five?" I said to one of the boys."That pretty good?"

He gave me a funny look. "Wise guy,huh? Come back at five. Back room. Be alone."

A few hourslater found me in the back room, but I wasn't alone. A couple ofhundred other guys were there, twitchier than so many Microsoft executives ata Department Of Justice hearing.

Finally Ellison slipped into the room.He wore a black turtleneck and an $8.3 billion smile. He had a coupleof TVs going. The picture was bad. The sound was bad. Typicalbroadcasters' show.

Ellison was mumbling something about a monsterdatabase, a huge server that would record 200 channels of televisioncontinuously. He said you could corner the market by letting people watchwhat they wanted when they want to. A certain blonde in San Francisco came tomind. She likes to watch late-night cop shows on Saturday afternoon.VCRs drive her crazy. She'd be a sucker for Ellison's gizmo.

Ilistened harder. Ellison was saying he gave the same digital convergencespeech 10 years ago in the same joint, but this time it was real. He saidhis buddy Rupert Murdoch already had a racket going over in the UK calledBIB, British Interactive Broadcasting. He had a guy come out and talkabout it. He showed the TV Guide on Murdoch's system. It wasdifferent - it went back a couple of days. You could pick a programmealmost a week old. He picked General Hospital. Bad choice. I hatesoap operas.

Then Ellison gave us the real scoop. He said the databasealso recorded the choices of each viewer, so you could send them targetedcommercials. Sell football tickets to some guys, ballet tickets toothers. That way you can sell more stuff.

Then someone asks aboutoperating systems. Ellison starts to get hot, and his guys move towardsthe doors. Time to go.

Got back to 'Frisco by nightfall. Emailfrom the blonde: "Don't forget to pick up milk." Idisappeared into the fog.