Out of the AOL-Time Warner merger comes a new clamor from federal regulators. The FCC plans to pay more attention to interactive TV, a product that scarcely exists-for now. When Internet and cable service finally collide into a combined service, many expect it to be huge. The sleeping giant of interactive TV is supposed to awaken and transform what we watch. We'll be able to talk back to the tube! Since AOL-Time Warner has so much power over content, Internet products, and cable service, this raises some eyebrows about possible market domination. So the Feds, who were caught napping in the dot-com boom, want to be sure they get in on the ground floor of this revolution. Some lobbyists worry that the TV of the future will be one big AOL service: a limited network that constantly drives users to its own content and away from competitors. In its own way this will be like the Microsoft fight all over again, with Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and Bob Pittman replacing Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer in the Rogue's Gallery. But even if the FCC started recommending regulations now, they would take months to become official. Since nobody knows what next-generation TV will look like, this debate could play out for years-thus indefinitely justifying the budgets for both regulators and lobbyists. Right now there are all sorts of competing ideas for next-generation TV, involving video game systems, pay-per-view, satellite dishes, high-speed data lines, widescreen sets, and a variety of premium services. Meanwhile, the average American seems content with last-generation TV: the color set, VCR, and cable TV that became dominant in the 1980s. Information a la I-mode
One of the hottest ways to talk over the Internet has over 17 million subscribers-and isn't even available in the United States? The service is called "i-mode," and it uses mobile phones to surf and talk. It's the biggest thing in Japan since the Walkman. While wireless e-mail prompts mild enthusiasm in the United States, i-mode is storming Japan, a country where one in two people owns a mobile phone. For up to $88 a month, users get games, e-mail, some websites, and news headlines on a screen the size of two postage stamps. There's nothing special about i-mode's technology, but its success is the talk of the world. I-mode's owner, NTT DoCoMo, is pressing forward into Europe later this year and eventually into the United States. To help prepare for the invasion, the company bought 16 percent of AT&T Wireless. It also made a deal with America Online; AOL Japan is being renamed DoCoMo AOL. And a new version of i-mode uses Java programming for faster, more elaborate service. I-mode's international future is the subject of much discussion. Americans are more PC-oriented than the Japanese and have high expectations even from portable gizmos. The stock quotes, bank balances, and restaurant reviews that helped make the system popular are old hat here. And part of i-mode's popularity involves heavy use of cutesy icons, jingles, and cartoon characters that may not play well in the West. Whether or not i-mode conquers the world, similar systems will eventually become as commonplace as car radios. As service and equipment become cheaper, cyberspace will soon be our constant companion.