I Have a Problem With My TV

(This column first appeared in Vol. 6-1 of the Panacea Perspective, circa May, 1994)

On a dreary Thursday night, sometime around 1997:

“Hi, this is Microsony Technical Support, how can I help you?”

“Well, this evening when I turned on my new TV, it looked kinda funny – all sorts of weird color and little square boxes with pictures in them. After a little while, it showed a box that said something about a General Protection Failure? And then, after I whacked it on the side like I used to with my old TV, the screen went black and now I can’t get Seinfeld anymore. Wait… it’s not completely black, there’s some letters in the corner. There’s a “C”, a couple of dots – one above the other, and this arrow head. What’s that all mean?”

“Sir, have you tried rebooting your TV?”

“Eh? Whatcha talking about? I told you I already booted it on the side, and then it went black! You want me to do it again?”

Welcome to the new age of the Intelligent TV (ITV), based on some Intel or PowerPC processor, running some type of GUI operating system (Windows for TVs perhaps)? Currently, the average TV viewer can’t even get rid of the flashing “12:00” on his VCR, so how can companies expect consumers to be able to deal with complex computer technology, such as what one would find in the set-tops and TVs of the late ’90s?

  • Installation – Since ITVs are going to have to be attached to a cable network of some sort, just think of what cable companies are going to have to go through to verify a stable, viable network connection in the home.
  • Network Crashes – If Joe Blow (who also makes a point of informing you how knowledgeable he is about cabling his A/V equipment) next door mucks about with his cable wiring, he could take the whole network down. And, there are a lot of Joe Blow’s out there…
  • TV Use Training Seminars – with some of the remote controls companies are bandying about these days, it’ll take several weeks of night classes for today’s “Flashing 12:00” victim to cope with them. And with the apparent need for differentiation set-top manufacturers seem to have, you’ll need different classes for each brand.
  • Boot times – If it takes my Pentium system 10 seconds to boot into DOS, imagine how much longer it might take to boot with a slower CPU running a GUI OS, just like the TVs of tomorrow are supposed to be using? Might make the warm-up period of vacuum tube TVs look downright speedy.
  • Boot failures – These could be memory related, or time- outs trying to load data off the cable network, or the dog sitting on the remote control issuing conflicting requests. The more complex the ITV device is, the more likely it is that something will go wrong.
  • Data Entry – How’s this even going to get done? With a large percentage of viewers considered functionally illiterate, a keyboard isn’t going to be that reliable, and anything less will frustrate the more literate users.
  • Maze-itis – Navigating will be challenging, and time consuming, without some significant improvements in proposed channel navigation user interfaces. Taking TV Guide, and making it into a paged menu with big text just doesn’t cut it, because NTSC TV quality is so lousy for small print.
  • Technical Support – as gadgets get less intuitive and more complicated, the amount of technical support users will require will increase. Imagine how a user of a new TV would respond to a $60-90/hour support fee (using a common software support model), just for a phone call to find out why his ITV crashed.
  • Viruses – These could be really nasty, such as ones which take stored credit card information (from your ITV’s Home Shopping registration record) and start charging up a storm. Of course, viruses would probably have lots of options, including randomizing your channel selections (you select channel 2, it brings up channel 5), or translating all your on-ITV viewing guides into another language. Such viruses could be easily transmitted, since ITVs will be able to download new software on the fly from the cable system server.
  • Backups – how do you backup your latest TV Software or the archives you’ve made of your latest on-line chats?

I’m sure there are many more pitfalls we haven’t yet even begun to think of. What it all points to is that intelligent, advanced TVs are going to require intelligent, advanced consumers. What percentage of the North American could be even loosely categorized like that? Suddenly the market potential of ITVs looks a lot less attractive.