An industry compromise and the probable blessing of the federal government is likely to make available the next generation of television set within two years. It will be big, bright, and display a finer picture and sound than anything currently on store shelves anywhere in the world.
But there's a niggling question: Will it be a TV or a personal computer?
That's the question consumers must try to answer in the wake of a dramatic compromise this week over proposed standards for high-definition television, or HDTV. In essence, the computer and television industries have agreed to disagree over how video images will be displayed on screen. The agreement, which is expected to receive rapid approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), allows both the TV- and computer-industry approaches to be used.
Thus, the battle for dominance will now shift to America's living rooms, where consumers may have a choice of devices and formats. They'll be picking not only what kind of device they'll use to watch TV, but also what kind of television they'll want to see - something similar to today's familiar but passive experience, or a computer-like experience in which communication is two-way.
"We're in a war ... for consumer eyeballs," Andrew Grove, president and chief executive of Intel Corp., said last week, before the agreement was reached. According to Mr. Grove, the computer industry is ahead. (Intel makes the most valuable chips that go inside personal computers.) "When it comes to digital TV, the TV industry is trying to catch up."
The reason for the industry's optimism: A number of manufacturers are already building devices that merge television programming with the two-way capability of the Internet. Some of these machines are displaying Internet content on TVs; others are bringing TV programs to the computer screen. The industry is banking that entrepreneurs will find compelling ways to merge the two and create a new kind of medium that will attract huge numbers of consumers. The new medium might be as simple as game shows where the TV audience can play along and win prizes. Or it might be a TV drama where viewers find the clues, or some other form of not-yet-invented entertainment. By 2000, the Internet might reach 80 percent of homes.
But others give the edge to TV manufacturers. "Programming is largely going to be what we've seen in the past, but it will be much more clear," says Richard Wiley, former chairman of the FCC's advisory committee on advanced television. TV sets will win that battle, he predicts.
HDTV will be much better than current TV because it uses twice as many lines to create the same picture. Also, the dimensions of the screen will change, allowing display of a much wider, movie-like picture. That way, many feature films, which currently are cropped to fit on TV screens, will be able to be shown in their full width.
TELEVISION manufacturers came up with initial HDTV standards after they formed the so-called "grand alliance" to produce HDTV. A year ago, the alliance reached a compromise with broadcasters and a few computer companies on HDTV standards, which appeared headed for FCC approval. But earlier this year, the software giant Microsoft and others began lobbying against that standard, saying it wasn't computer-friendly. Progress toward HDTV stopped.
The primary squabble involved how the screen paints a video picture. Current TV sets do it one way; computer monitors do it another. The proposed standards called for the industry to move eventually to the computer-industry's way of doing things as the technology improved.
But Microsoft and other computer-related companies wanted the switch made right away. To reach a compromise, the industries agreed to do away with that part of the standards altogether, making it likely that the competitors will move down slightly different paths, says Mr. Wiley.