Watch this space: the Web heads for the small screen

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The Independent Online
The establishment of British Interactive Broadcasting could mark the coming of age of the Internet as a marketing tool. "Surfing" is still a niche activity: at best 3 per cent of British households have a World Wide Web connection, and despite frenetic growth the figure will barely top 20 per cent by 2000. Most Internet users are moreover young, white, male and middle class.

Excitement about the Net being "the cheapest form of advertising" has dissolved as most companies have discovered their World Wide Web sites have attracted little interest and no business. Those that have been successful have either sold to the young, male market (software, CDs, sportswear), or have cracked a specific business niche - Americans buy air tickets in their millions online.

What BIB is doing is offering Internet on the telly: viewers who subscribe will be able to surf using a keyboard linked to the TV by an infra-red ray. Other companies will be providing something similar: the US company Net Channel hopes to get "Web TV" packages in the shops by the end of the year, and cable companies must soon make a similar offering. As 93 per cent of households have a television, the Net is set to become a mass medium.

Although the BIB system lets big companies offer (non-Internet) home shopping and banking, Web TV will allow smaller operators to challenge them - up to a point. According to BIB's commercial director Chris Townsend, "we will not be allowing sites like Internet shopping malls into our Internet offering because they would be direct competition to our interactive retail". The exact nature of the embargo is not clear: Townsend says the Internet Bookshop, a "virtual" store that allows you to buy any British book in print, and delivers it by post will be allowed on board. The Internet Bookshop's sales are limited now by the size of the Internet market - but if its service is available through the television set, it will become a mass-market player alongside WH Smith and Waterstones. Some existing intermediaries see a mass-market Net as an opportunity as well as a threat. Boots, for example, has a Web site that is aimed mainly at women, and is waiting for the day it will reach more of them via the television. Furthermore, Boots is determined to use the interactive potential of the Internet to "personalise its message".

But there may be a problem. Web pages are designed to be viewed from 3ft away, whereas a TV viewer might sit 12ft away. Existing teletext services use big print, and cannot fit many words onto a screen. Web pages will have to be adapted to make them suitable for television viewing - and if that makes them less interesting, they may not attract quite the audience their proponents hope.

David Bowen edits 'Net Profit', a non-technical business newsletter about the Internet. Tel: 0181 355 6836.