domestic Internet bliss (1997)

As we see off the last Flying Toaster cross the computer screen, we look at ‘Internet aware’ products.
There’s seemingly no end to things going digital. While the toaster in the kitchen has again escaped getting connected to the Internet, looking around the home quite a few things did not – wrote Roger Frost in 1997.

One consumer device to succumb to the fate was the portable stereo player. For surely serious technophiles, US firm Audible Inc is planning to make a pocket player that can store Web audio. Using your PC you go surfing for music or Web books and then juice up the tiny gizmo with the sounds you want to travel with. Called a “Web-man”, in these wonderfully gender-aware days, the 100 gram player will connect to a car radio system or headphones.

The Internet phone, a system that lets people make long distance calls at a local call rate has moved into a new generation. This enemy of the telecom companies, allows one Internet connected PC to talk to another while they are both on the system. To date the caveat has been that both users need to be live on the system before any conversation can take place. Now, with Net2Phone, one user can dial a regular phone using their PC and talk straight. Apart from a takes-getting-used to delay in transmission the quality is little to complain about given it’s pitifully low cost. Subscribing is easy too – software can be downloaded from the Net2Phone Web site (www.net2phone.com) and phone cards costing from $25 can be purchased. The total call charges are effectively twice local rate – one local rate is for the normal Internet connection and one from the phone card. A recently launched competing product comes from NTC Voice who add that they expect PC telephony to grow from last year’s figure of 170 million minutes use despite its limitations. Their forecast says this will rise to 24 billion minutes of use in the year 2000.

WebTV, the US system that puts another box beside the television and provides an Internet service as another channel, is reporting an extremely healthy growth in new connections. Since starting last Xmas, they say they have 150,000 subscribers and well up from the 30,000 at the time Microsoft bought the company in April. Prices of the Sony/Philips made TV set top units have now dropped to $99 while incorporating enhancements to the playback of Internet sourced video clips. As we’ve come to expect with price cuts, a new model – the Plus Receiver is on its way. The Plus offers a zippy 56 K modem (up from 34K), and a substantial hard disk to cache information, store electronic mail and so on. It adds TV independent picture-in-picture, a feature long lost from normal sets but happily placed here so that viewers can view as they surf. Happiest of all will be the advertisers who can now send product information, promotions and retail locations. All the advertiser has to do is to place their Web address URL into the television signal as their commercial is broadcast. The Plus Receiver reads the URL and shows it as a watermark, called a TV Crossover Link, on the ad. Furthermore, now that the new unit has non-volatile, hard disk storage, it can store ‘cookies’ essentially files which track consumer preferences and use of the Web. So when they run say, a movie trailer viewers can receive a link that is personally tailored to them with showing times for local cinemas, or indeed a seat booking option. For the advertisers this provides the clearest view yet of the response to their ad. It may even herald an ad payment system based on the number of clicks rather anything else.

Still cameras have not only gone digital but doing it big too. While rapid progress here has been held up by the ability to use the images, moves by the most print aware companies are taking the entire scene onto the computer and the Internet. Fuji and Kodak offer services where photo images on screen can be sent to them for ‘processing’ on the Internet and they deliver a quality print by post. In fact, current photo editing software is starting to feature a ‘send to Kodak’ button alongside the usual print button. From as far back as last year, Microsoft Picture It software has lets you assemble say, a slide show of visuals and post them on the Internet as a set of Web pages. Now, Kodak are offering Internet accounts to businesses and consumers with a chunk of space dedicated to storing the many Megabytes of images this new industry will take. Together with Hewlett-Packard, the company best known for its colour printers, they are establishing software standards where camera images can be easily dragged-and-dropped to make Internet based brochures and portfolios which of course can be accessed from a prospective customer’s site or indeed their WebTV. What’s almost wry is that this new ease of presenting PC photographic images comes as the printer manufactures are launching a series of photograph quality printers at a reasonable £399 price point.

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