And the answer for many at a new-media show in Los Angeles last week was "not." For now, the device for interactive home shopping, entertainment and information services is the personal computer, not the boob tube.
Current technologies like CD-ROM and online services and fast-emerging technologies like cable services connected to PCs will quickly make the PC a mainstream interactive device, many executives concluded at the fifth annual Digital World.
The show drew more than 20,000 people from Silicon Valley, Hollywood, cable and phone companies and elsewhere.
Nearly one-third of U.S. households already own a PC. Within three years, more than half will be in the computer age, with a majority equipped with CD-ROM drives and modems to allow interaction, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Research International, San Jose, Calif.
"The PC is clearly the interactive device," Mr. Bajarin said. "Now, everybody's focusing on reality, which is interactive TV is going to take a heck of a long time."
Interactive TV still will happen, industry seers said, but it won't begin to be a mass medium until late this decade.
Drawing considerable attention were CD-ROM computer games with Hollywood production values, such as Loadstar, a game due out this fall from startup Rocket Science Games, Palo Alto, Calif., featuring actor Ned Beatty.
But technologies designed to make interactive PC offerings easier to use and cheaper to produce could have broader implications.
La Crescenta, Calif.-based Knowledge Adventure, a leader in consumer educational software, unveiled a software system that could be used for home shopping and online services. A prototype, developed for AT&T, shows how consumers could navigate through a virtual shopping mall simply by pointing and clicking a computer mouse.
Kaleida Labs, a joint venture between Apple Computer and IBM Corp., demonstrated software designed to make it less expensive to turn out sophisticated multimedia software. Videogame marketer Accolade this fall will release All-Pro Video Football, a CD-ROM featuring the technology.
But Kaleida's software also could be a boon to advertisers wanting to create interactive discs. Kaleida-based software can run on different types of computers, such as Macintosh and Windows PCs. And once a CD-ROM is created, it effectively can be updated through an online service.
Mountain View, Calif.-based Kaleida now is focusing on software application developers, but it plans to begin promoting the Kaleida name to consumers late next year or in 1996.
Kaleida is trying to avoid the hype it prematurely generated when Apple and IBM announced the venture three years ago.
"We were promoting the company before we had any employees or products. That's not a very good marketing strategy," said Michael Braun, a veteran IBMer who joined Kaleida as president-CEO last year.
Kaleida's new realism was in sync with the contempt for hype apparent at the show, attended by such interactive shapers as Bell Atlantic Corp., Microsoft Corp., Blockbuster Entertainment Corp., Walt Disney Co., IBM Corp. and QVC.
A year ago, John Sculley, then chairman of Apple Computer, pitched such new wares as Newton, the wireless interactive device that dropped on the market with a thud a few months later.
This year, keynote speaker Christopher Galvin, president of Motorola, promoted caution.
"It will take at least a decade for this industry and its derivatives to evolve," he said.