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In the era of interactive TV, the lines between advertisements, entertainment and services may grow fuzzy. A slick demonstration put together by programmers at Microsoft shows how that might be so. The presentation opens with a Seattle Mariners baseball game. By clicking a button on a mouse or remote control, a viewer can bring up a menu of options (displayed as buttons on the screen). Click on one, and the image of the batter at the plate shrinks to make room for the score and the player's stats RBIs, home runs and batting average updated with every pitch. Click again, and you see the Mariners' home schedule. Click yet again, and a diagram of the Kingdome pops up, showing available seats and pricing. Click one more time, and you have ordered a pair of field box seats on the first-base side (and reduced your credit-card balance by about $25).
This is the vision that has the best minds from Madison Avenue to Silicon Valley scrambling for position at the starting gate. The telephone companies, with their switching networks already in place, want to build the superhighway and control what travels over it. The cable-TV companies, with their coaxial systems, think they should own the right-of-way. Computer companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun want to build the huge file servers that will act as video and information libraries. Such software companies as Microsoft and Apple want to build the operating systems that will serve as the data highway's traffic cops, controlling the flow of information to and from each viewer's screen. Meanwhile, TV Guide is racing against InSight, TV Answer and Discovery Communications to design electronic navigators that will tell viewers what's on TV and where to find it.
"Make no mistake about it," says Vice President Al Gore, who was talking about information highways long before they were fashionable. "This is by all odds the most important and lucrative marketplace of the 21st century." If Gore is right, the new technology will force the merger of television, telecommunications, computers, consumer electronics, publishing and information services into a single interactive information industry. Apple Computer chairman John Sculley estimates that the revenue generated by this megaindustry could reach $3.5 trillion worldwide by the year 2001. (The entire U.S. gross national product today is about $5.9 trillion.)
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton and Gore made building a "data superhighway" a centerpiece of their program to revitalize the U.S. economy, comparing it with the government's role in creating the interstate highway system in the 1950s. The budget proposal the Administration submitted in February includes nearly $5 billion over the next four years to develop new software and equipment for the information highway.