Two-way services for home computers may freeze out cable-TV operators in the near future. At the same time that Warner-Amex's highly publicized Qube cable system in Columbus, Ohio, cuts back on its two-way programming, three corporate giants -CBS, IBM, and Sears, Roebuck - have joined forces to begin development of a commercial videotex service that will be available to any household with a home or personal computer. Subscribers will not have to be wired to anything other than the telephone lines.
Ed Nanas, director of information at IBM, told me that the as yet unnamed two-way interactive service will not be in operation for at least three years. But before the end of the decade it is expected that the service will enable consumers to call up a wide range of information such as news, financial data, and educational material. It will also enable consumers to send messages and perform such two-way transactions as banking, bill paying, and home shopping.
CBS, which was formerly engaged in an experimental videtoex program with American Telephone & Telegraph, is expected to provide expertise in the area of commercially sponsored entertainment and information programming. IBM will bring exprience in computer hardware and software. Sears comes into the deal with a large customer base as well as experience in retail and financial services.
What will all of this mean to the average computer owner?
Well, since the videotex service will probably not require a special terminal , plans are to make it accessible to just about every computer now on the market. ''Any computer that can access a telephone can access videotex,'' Mr. Nanas explained.
This universality of consumer accessibility also will ensure that the system will be open to a wide variety of advertisers -among them general merchandise retailers like Sears, publishers, and product manufacturers. It is anticipated that banking, brokerage, and real estate services will be offered, too.
So, by around 1987 or 1988 the thick Sears, Roebuck catalog may be supplemented by a Sears computer service. Models wearing Sears clothing will parade across the home screen and as the offerings flash past consumers, a touch of a button will order an item. A touch of another button will specify size. The mailing address will already be computerized.
Stock-market investors will be able to buy and sell by pushing a button. Banks will provide monthly printouts of balances on a video screen, replacing the ''old-fashioned'' mailings. Just as two-way cable systems now provide burglar and fire alarm systems, similar home-safety services can be part of the videotex sales pitch.
Whether the consumer or the supplier will pay most of the videotex cost has not been determined - just as it has not yet been established in the cable-TV field whether advertiser-supported cable programming or pay-cable will be the ultimate form of entertainment.
But with the apparent slowdown in development of new interactive cable services while cable systems consolidate their basic operations, it looks as if computer/telephone-line systems will be moving in rapidly. Thus it is incumbent on current purchasers to be sure their new computers have telephone-access capability.
Theft of cable services
With more than 5 percent of all cable services being stolen by consumers who seem to regard such mom-and-pop theft benignly, a recent decision in US District Court in Uniondale, N.Y., is regarded as an important decision by many in the cable industry.
The federal court issued a contempt-of-court citation against a company that has continued to market descramblers and decoders in the face of a preliminary injunction enjoining companies from engaging in the practice of selling devices that enable consumers to steal scrambled and encoded cable signals.
The high cost of detecting thefts has been the main reason there has not been much done up until now, but new devices for detecting thievery are being perfected. One cable company, HBO, is about to engage in a campaign to deter theft of its services. HBO scrambles its signals and provides subscribers with a descrambled signal when they pay for the service.
In San Diego, the Cox Cable System recently campaigned to persuade consumers illegally tapped into their service to subscribe. Since California law specifies harsh penalties for theft of cable service, Cox offered amnesty to any of the guilty who subscribed openly. More than 12,000 signed up.