Cheap Memories, Terabytes of Dreams


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It's a videophile's fantasy, Blockbuster's
nightmare and a data pack rat's nirvana: a digital library with hundreds of movies,
games and other MPEG archives squeezed into a set-top box with Methuselahean memory.

Mega-memory is at the heart of WebTV Networks'
set-top-storage scenario.

According to WebTV president and founder Steve Perlman, it
was this digital-storage agenda that spurred Seagate Technologies (a major hard-drive
supplier) to become an early investor in WebTV. It's a key reason behind
Microsoft's acquisition of WebTV a year ago; both companies also share other visions,
such as data downloads embedded into video signals.

As the accompanying chart indicates, today's $200
WebTV Plus is packaged with a paltry precursor of the memories yet to come. The current
box includes a 1.3-gigabyte hard drive, which was considered awesome when it was
introduced last fall. Now, Perlman is flashing his plan to add capacity to the box during
the coming decade. He calls it "TV-on-Disk," and he envisions a 20-fold increase
in the box's storage capacity within the next four years.

Memory improvements come faster after that.

Around 10 years from now, by Perlman's account, the
WebTV box will have 1 terabyte (1,000 GB) of storage -- more than 750 times today's

As the chart shows, that's enough to hold hundreds of
feature films in Super VHS-equivalent quality -- better than most homes now see on their
videocassette players.

If the digital era arrives, as scheduled, the WebTV box
could hold more than enough DVD-quality programs to satisfy most visual hungers by 2008.

Of course, WebTV's -- and parent Microsoft's --
product-driven visions extend well beyond movies. Although cast in terms of video storage,
the dreams of massive capacity also include Internet content, data files, video games and
undreamed-of software. The high-capacity storage suits the goals of both companies to
integrate the Web and video networks, meshing hyperlinked content -- which could be
locally stored -- into new kinds of programming.

Nascent ventures -- such as the WaveTop service of
prepackaged Web sites -- could take advantage of this set-top storage, adding thousands of
graphically enriched home pages to the house-held mix. Today, WaveTop is transmitted via
the Public Broadcasting Service's VBI (vertical-blanking interval) and aimed at PCs
with appropriate TV-tuner cards and data storage. Future versions could go directly into
the set-top box for stronger integration with TV content.

Other would-be video/modem purveyors -- such as Intertainer
or other cable-modem packagers -- could also work through this set-top box in
forward-and-store motifs.

In the client-server argot, this client may be thin, but it
has a hefty appetite.

The WebTV plan is not yet a slam dunk. Miniaturization
could eventually shrink the "TV-on-Disk" technology to fit into other
manufacturers' set-top boxes (or even into future digital TV sets). But no such plans
are firm today. The shifting fates of the entire set-top-box business may force WebTV and
Microsoft to remain on the fringes of this environment for years to come. If nothing else,
TCI's purchase orders will affect deployment, although Microsoft/WebTV could then use
their retail-distribution channels to circumvent such barriers.

The existence of such technology should put other companies
on notice.

Interactive-content suppliers and packagers that want to
cram all of the heavy processing and storage into the headend or central office should be
taking a look at this plan to give customers storage power in their own viewing rooms.
Cable operators and production studios -- and even promoters of pay-per-play home-video
systems, such as Divx -- should understand what this archiving capacity might mean for
pay-per-view ventures.

The foundation for all of these dreams is the long-espoused
mantra that in computers, "memory keeps getting cheaper." You can walk into your
neighborhood computer retailer and buy 1 GB of memory for less than $40 today -- far below
what you paid for a few-dozen megabytes a couple of years ago.

And that's a reminder about the one interesting column
that's missing from the WebTV chart: the dollar $ign column that indicates the co$ts
-- and, hopefully, revenue$ -- from TV-on-Disk.

That's the thing that will make $weet memories.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen is awaiting a brain
implant for memory improvement.