View from America: On line to survive the battle: The day of the PC is far from over. Even some cable-TV giants are showing interest, reports Larry Black

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The Independent Online
In the battle to become the medium of the 21st century those who back cable TV, telephones and multimedia game players swear they will bury the PC. But, if even the British export effort can sustain its own computer 'on- line' service, is there any doubt which technology will survive?

Anyone who has spent even a night in a New York City hotel room has been treated to a private preview of the '500-channel future' - endless hours of sitcom reruns, low-budget soft porn and home shopping kitsch.

Cable television in the US already offers the Science Fiction Channel, the Food Channel and Court TV, with the promise of future channels as diverse as special interest magazines or the eclectic 'bulletin boards' - from the Bestiality Forum to Zoroastrian Cyberchurch - that populate the outer reaches of the Internet.

Although many of these new cable and satellite channels will be supported by monthly subscriber fees, media analysts expect most to be selling something, be it compact discs, real estate or legal services. An infinite number of channels will serve constituencies and advertisers too specialised for today's mass marketing media.

Mercifully, even in a 50,000- channel future, there will never be a British-American Chamber of Commerce cable-television network. That however does not mean there won't be a British- American Business On-Line Service. Indeed, one will be available on an experimental basis in two weeks in the US and Britain.

'Every day we get queries from companies in, say, the north of England, which have a product and want to sell in the US,' says Peter Felix, chief executive of the BACC chapter in New York. The 20-odd transatlantic trade groups, with their membership of 750 corporations and 9,000 executives in Britain and the US, sit on a wealth of information that might be useful to a prospective exporter, but have neither the time nor the resources to handle such requests.

But soon anyone with a personal computer and a modem (and an account password) will be able to call a local BT phone number and tap into the BACC's business, finance and trade database. The user-friendly service - it requires no manual - will guide callers to its directory of bilateral investment and to related sources such as the US Department of Commerce's trade databank, share prices and Dun & Bradstreet's electronic companies library.

A sophisticated sort-and-search will allow users to locate information on potential business partners and research markets.

The service, available to BACC members and eventually others, will also provide a thrice-daily news summary tailored to transatlantic business people. Travellers will soon be able to book flights and hotel rooms through the British-American Business On-line Network - British Airways and American Airlines have expressed interest - and companies will be able to advertise there.

Users can customise the service so that when they call in the scores of their favourite football team or price of their UK shares will automatically pop up.

The service is likely to entice people to join the Chamber, says Mr Felix, and may become a source of revenue. While prices have not yet been set, the basic cost to subscribe in the US will probably be dollars 10 to dollars 20 a month, with some of the more sophicated applications metered by the hour.

It will be eminently affordable, both to users - whose charges will be less than the cost of using a fax - and to the BACC, which says it is essentially self-financing.

It also took only a few months to launch, says Sean Lapp, of Information Interclear, the Chicago computer consulting firm that put the system together. With proprietary software he likens to Lego blocks, a customer such as the BACC can define and assemble its own on-line service in less than 40 days. The only labour-intensive work is reformatting the client's in-house data, and Mr Lapp's firm has automated this as well.

Only a few years ago even a huge multinational corporation would not have contemplated such a project. The communications aspect alone was daunting, exclusive domain of big long-distance carriers such as BT, AT&T and MCI. To challenge Compuserve, the original public on-line service, took big companies such as IBM, Sears, General Electric and News Corporation, which have spent many millions establishing such rivals as Prodigy, GEnie and Delphi.

But computing costs have collapsed and the big communications companies have realised the benefits of opening their networks. So not only is the number of on-line subscribers exploding - it has passed 5 million and is rising 30 per cent annually - so are the services available.

Dozens are in the works, sponsored by big firms such as Microsoft and by individual 'content providers', aided by designers like Mr Lapp's Interclear and Interchange, a competing service from the Ziff-Davis computer publishing group.

The fast growth of the on-line services, coupled with new electronic payments systems that allow for real-time shopping from one's PC have taken many outside Silicon Valley by surprise.

While big media and telecoms companies have been investing tens of billions of dollars in new TV and telephone-based entertainment - buying up Hollywood studios and developing cable-TV boxes and video game players - there has been explosion of interest in interactive computing.

A study released last week is particularly alarming to those who have staked their future on movies-on-demand and Nintendo-style video players. Interco, a US research firm, found that the growth in on-line services has in fact been at the expense of pay-per-view cable programming and spending on video games.

For example, owners of PCs - there are now 150 million in use in offices, homes and schools - tend to cancel premium cable-TV services once they sign on to an on- line service.

Indeed, some analysts note that in an industry whose main products are still unproven on-line services are the only interactive medium actually doing business and making money - something that has not been lost on even the US cable-TV giants that have gambled on a 500-channel future. The industry leader, Tele-Communications Inc, was reportedly in talks last week with America Online, the fastest growing service, about acquiring a stake in the firm.

(Photograph omitted)