shopping gene still not found – online shopping (1999)

Anyone counting on the Internet as the singular channel for interactivity and home shopping would have to wake up to the news that high street bank HSBC has started its online services through ‘Open’, the interactive TV service. By early next year, it will grow to a full banking service where UK customers use a digital satellite set-top box to look up balances, transfer money, pay bills online – and all of that as if the Internet never existed.

Within six months 70% of retail banks plan to offer similar services – but not through the net, just through the TV. By then ‘Open’ will have added to its online shopping portfolio comprising Dixons, Next, Woolworths, Somerfields, Going Places and as many more. That already adds-up to an in-home shopping mall.

The thinking goes that for much of the population the net is too scary, technical and intelligent. For the banks it’s also just too scary to have transactions running through other peoples bits of Internet. All credit to Barclay’s, another bank, to have worked round the security issue by becoming an Internet service provider. Nevertheless the set-top box is king and offers fulfilment: interacting with TV is blissfully straightforward.

What remains is that digital cable and terrestrial spawn channels like Open. What also remains is some proof that people really do have a built-in drive to shop like this. At this moment hundreds of scientists are working on mapping the entire human chromosome set. And while we’ve heard that their job is near complete, interactive TV companies should worry that no one has yet found the gene that drives shopping.

But I digress. If human nature can’t guarantee the success of technology, the least it can do is to go see what others have done. Worth singling out is Microsoft’s WebTV an Internet on TV service which runs in the US.

You can find the WebTV set-top box in high street shops for $100-$200. On top of that comes an Internet service charge of $20-$25 a month. Although people don’t ‘pay’ for their phone calls to the Internet in the US, they do make it up in Internet service charges – set beside this the cost of WebTV could be seen as trifling.

Since we last reported on this, WebTV now comes in three flavours. New and at the top end is WebTV Plus for digital Satellite. In addition to games and parental controls, more famously this features ‘TV-Pause’ where can hold a programme for up to thirty minutes. An EchoStar DISH Player does this by using simultaneous record and play on a multi-gigabyte hard disc.

An electronic programme guide offers a search capability, programme tagging and one-touch video recording. Internet links within the listings yield yet more information. With 300 channels on offer you start to see the need for search features as well as a printer port that lets you output your TV guide to a standard printer.  

WebTV also features the obligatory pay-per-view features and shopping services. While there’s no banking as yet, shopping is encouraged by a guarantee against fraudulent transactions on your credit card.

The advertising on WebTV is a bit special. Here a TV ad can come with an on-screen highlight that holds a link to the Internet. When the viewer selects a link a pull down menu appears allowing them to connect directly to the advertisers web site. First among the advertisers are car makers, toy and book sellers. Likewise programme makers can offer links to provide that much vaunted audience interaction – game show pilots on Jeopardy and the Wheel of Fortune are currently running. Here viewers can link to the programme web site and join in the play by answering questions ahead of the contestants. The site keeps track of the scores and ranks you among the other players.

Surprisingly, much of this functions using the pre-digital TV technology of using an Internet feed and even without the digital satellite add-on. WebTV’s on-screen software overlays are little short of slick – picture in picture gains its best use as you surf, look up programs or handle email. The system works round the low resolution of TV screens by actually reprocessing text and pictures on the fly: the text size is increased, fuzzy fonts are swopped for readable ones and photographs converted to a different format.  

And while no TV viewer asked for it, and there’s no gene for wanting to do it, WebTV allows you to build web pages and web photo albums. Less glamorous educational uses of the system are easily forgotten in the rush to find consumers. A whole section is devoted to nuggets of knowledge and online teachers. Best of all Web TV is fun to use and doesn’t patronise people who choose not to use a computer or can’t afford one. Nor does it confuse a lack of technical knowledge with a lack of viewer intelligence. These two consumer attributes, as our scientists will surely soon show, are coded by entirely separate genes.  





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