Surfers unlikely to abandon PCs for TVs

Much as the eight-track tape player is viewed as a kitschy museum artifact of the disco generation, today’s youth will one day feel a sentimental yearning for the days when all you could do on a TV was change channels.

At least that’s what Mike Lee, vice-president of product development for Rogers Cable Inc. told 150 IT and new media professionals assembled Wednesday morning at the Canadian communication giant’s downtown Toronto offices.

Lee’s presentation to the SMART Toronto technology association explored the convergence of new broadband PC services and the future of interactive television (ITV).

Describing his day job as deciding which products are visionary and which are “hallucinations,” Lee said telecommunication strategies should focus on “converting services and behaviour from analogue to digital.” He said this is necessary to support the digital lifestyle increasingly being adopted by Canadians.

Television is only one component in this digital lifestyle, Lee said. However, since everyone has a TV and, when added up, members of a typical family spend five and a half to seven hours per day watching it, it is an excellent access point for companies and government to reach the public with Web-enabled messages.

“After 50 years of sitting on a couch in a slightly catatonic state, with eyes glassed over . . . ITV is the beginning of a series of sea-change events that will alter how people use TV,” Lee said.

By late 2002, Lee said all cable subscribers in the Greater Toronto Area will have the infrastructure to take advantage of the types of personal services formerly associated with PCs or PDAs, such as e-mail, instant messaging, chat and access to Web-based local information.

Despite this, Rogers’ research suggests there are limits to the kind of computing people will want to do on their TVs.

“There is not going to be a cross-over market between PCs and TVs. The TV is six feet away and communal . . . so there will always be things that are done on a TV, and things that are done on a PC,” Lee said.

Because of its utility, Lee said people would still turn to their PCs for more in-depth, reading-heavy Web research. But ITV – accessed from the couch with a remote control – will be the service of choice for quick Internet hits like movie reviews or sports updates. Similarly, although wired appliances like the recently debuted Electrolux Screenfridge are nifty, Lee does not expect a tidal wave of consumers who want to check Yahoo while getting a glass of milk – or who want to buy a new fridge.

As for the eight or 10 network standards – like WiFi 802.11B and RF – competing for dominance in the fully serviced home, Lee noted that “some will live and some will die, but it will be a multi-standard home.”

However, he added, that it’s really only a problem for the telcos that have to bet on which ones to invest in, and shouldn’t affect cable subscribers since new services will come through existing wires.

Although the technology is increasing in complexity, services will simplify, Lee said, not taking the form of new things, so much as “better old things.” For example, ITV will let kids watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer while a split-screen format lets them send instant messages about the show back and forth.

“Although the desire to do this is incomprehensible to anyone over 25 – including me, as many times as I try it – they are already doing it manually with phones and PCs.” The bottom line for ITV, he said, “is that everyone wants to surf on everything.”

Rogers is at