A Crystal-Clear Future (Yeah Right) First Interacvtive TV, Now The 'Net. What's Coming Up Next Year?

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It's March 13, 1996, another day at the virtual office. You click the Microsoft Network icon on Windows 95, wondering how Apple Computer went for so much in that takeover.

You ignore the O.J. Interactive courtroom dispatch and remind yourself to check primary tallies on the Sonny Bono for President home page. You then chuckle over a news item about more problems with Time Warner's interactive TV test. Don't they know the meaning of "That's all, folks"?

You, of course, had the sense to throw out your interactive TV consultant business cards and now make a killing as a World Wide Web commerce consultant. Your main qualification is a subscription to Wired, which looks impressive on the coffee table. You've never bothered to read the thing.

That's the future. See you next year.

In fact, there was remarkable agreement among the pundits Advertising Age asked to foretell the state of the interactive market one year from now. (Remind us to grade them next March.)

Voted most likely to succeed: Microsoft Network, the online service that will be bundled with the Windows 95 operating system starting, supposedly, this August.

Runner-up: the World Wide Web and its host of improved marketing messages.

Most likely to fail: interactive TV.

Most likely to keep going and going: the Internet. (So much for thoughts of banishing that I-word from our vocabulary.)

Microsoft Network "has no chance for failure," said Scott Briggs, publisher of Computer Life. "The question is how big a success it is going to be."

Portia Isaacson, president of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based consultancy Dream IT, estimates Microsoft will ship a remarkable 30 million copies of Windows 95 in the first year, all one mouse click away from the new online service.

"The Microsoft Network will be an integrating entity for all online services," said Ms. Isaacson.

For now, it's an interactive vapor trail. A year out, Microsoft probably will be laboring to fix real-life kinks.

"They will start with limited services, but Microsoft always starts slowly and keeps hammering away," said Mr. Briggs.

In contrast, several experts said Apple Computer could be gobbled up.

"Eventually, someone will buy Apple," said Jerry Michalski, managing editor of Release 1.0, a New York-based newsletter.

The mass appeal of the Internet or, more precisely, its friendlier World Wide Web component, will make it part of mainstream marketing, predicted Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Research International, San Jose, Calif.

In 1996, a consumer products company that does not have a Web site will be the exception to the rule, Mr. Bajarin said: "It's either that or they're left in the dust."

But merely being on the Web will say no more about a marketer's sophistication than buying a TV spot; the distinction will come in what a marketer does with the medium.

"Companies will have to add content so that people will be attracted to the service," said George Ehinger, associate publisher of Home Office Computing.

Smart marketers will pay more attention to the social aspects of Internet marketing, recognizing they may not be helping their cause by littering the environment with the cyberspace equivalent of billboards.

A few experts raised caution signs.

"The biggest surprise on the Internet will be the failure of the Internet to be taken as a reliable electronic commerce platform," said Torrey Byles, director of electronic commerce at BIS Strategic Decisions in Santa Clara, Calif. The 'net is viable for commerce, he stressed, but many potential marketers won't figure it out.

Others refuse to give in to Internet hype.

"The question mark for 1995 will be if the Internet continues to grow or if companies can justify spending the dollars to go online," said Robert Smith Jr., executive director of the Interactive Services Association, Silver Spring, Md.

Mr. Smith is more enthusiastic about a less glitzy interactive medium he thinks will ring in the year in a big way.

"900-numbers," he said, "are coming back. They will be a very strong marketing tool. It is easy and everyone has a phone."

Near-term prospects also look solid for CD-ROM, a relatively new medium that's become so pervasive it almost looks old.

Skeptics long have insisted CD-ROM is an interim technology. But while booming online services remain comparatively small and interactive TV is just a blip, CD-ROM has become the de facto mainstream interactive technology, immediately accessible to millions of people buying home PCs.

"CD-ROM is the closest thing" to interactive TV today, said Mr. Briggs, adding that he in fact sees new life in the CD-ROM medium through "writeable" discs that let users record data, video and sound.

Unlike a few years ago, when interactive TV was the hottest thing going, today there are proven alternative technologies delivering an interactive audience.

"Interactive TV is a bad idea," said Mr. Michalski.

Phone and cable companies should find more short-term success over the next year in delivering broadband online services to PCs through cable modems, than in delivering interactive TV, an unproven market.

Chances appear somewhat better for new, limited interactive applications that can work on TV without the cost of the grand-scale interactive networks.

Laurie Frick, marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Home Products Division, mentions Zing Systems, which has a technology allowing consumers to respond to ads and programs via remote control. HP and General Instrument are making cable TV set-top boxes using Zing technology.

"You're taking the strength and breadth of broadcast advertising and adding a little turbo power," Ms. Frick said. "This is real stuff."

Is it? Tune in next year.

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