'Settop boxes'to get first testingBell Atlantic Corp.'s...

TECHNOLOGY & COMMUNICATION

January 24, 1994|By Steve Auerweck | Steve Auerweck,Staff Writer

'Settop boxes'to get first testing

Bell Atlantic Corp.'s recent choice of three vendors of video-on-demand equipment points to a future in which the most powerful computer in a home might well be sitting unobtrusively atop the TV set.

The first "settop boxes" for marketing tests and an initial rollout of its Stargazer service, both in the Washington area, will be built by IBM; a partnership of Philips Digital Videocommunications and Compression Labs Inc.; and a consortium of DiviCom, Adaptive MicroWare and EURODEC.

The boxes will have a 68000 processor from Motorola Inc. and two megabytes of memory -- about the same horsepower as an average Macintosh of a half-dozen years ago. But, said Bell Atlantic spokesman Larry Plumb, the company expects "to go through generations in probably very rapid order."

The boxes are being designed to handle different "pipelines" -- fiber optic, coaxial, copper or wireless transmission -- with the change of a circuit card.

Mr. Plumb said the company plans to lease rather than sell the boxes, at least initially, so consumers won't be paralyzed by the old "Beta vs. VHS" fear.

IBM has announced that it expects to build settop boxes with a customized version of the PowerPC muscle chip. Spokesman David Harrah in Armonk, N.Y., said the company expects to ship the first copies of the IBM PowerPC 4xx Embedded Controller about a year from now and envisions the computing capability of settop boxes continuing to climb a "parabolic curve."

"John Malone [president of Tele-Communications Inc.] said we'll see a billion-instruction-per-second chip in settop boxes by the end of the century. Where's the news?" Mr. Harrah said. "The power of . . . microprocessors is doubling every 12 to 18 months."

IBM is not setting itself up to be a major builder of settop boxes, Mr. Harrah said. Rather, it's interested in selling its components to others in the field.

At Bell Atlantic, the first effort will not be the ultimate in technology. The planned video-compression method requires material to be processed in advance, making it suitable for movies but not for something like CNN.

But the company thought it important to produce a "killer application" -- video delivery -- in a way that would be competitively priced. Mr. Plumb said that while tests elsewhere have put $6,000 of equipment in homes, producing a "lot of sizzle," they're not commercially viable.

Library access tops MCI survey

Bell Atlantic would do well to ponder the results of a recent survey by MCI Communications Corp. on expectations for the information highway.

The most-desired service, cited by more than three-quarters of those responding, is access to libraries and educational programs that allow them to take courses electronically.

Movies on demand came in at No. 2, cited by 61 percent. Fifty-five percent looked forward to accessing travel reservation networks, and 44 percent to making video-telephone calls.

More than two-thirds of the 800 adults polled nationwide believed that multimedia services will be available in their homes within five years.

This month, MCI announced plans to spend $20 billion to upgrade its data networks and offer multimedia consumer services.

Intersolv updates mainframe software

Over time, the giant computers purchased by giant companies can turn into giant headaches.

The catch is that the so-called "legacy" mainframes, which often handle critical portions of a company's business, represent enormous investments, not just in hardware, but in millions of lines of software. Flashier machines may have come down the pike, but it's not easy to justify scrapping an old one that still does the job.

This is where Intersolv Inc. of Rockville comes in. The company's Maintenance Workbench software comes in. It offers programmers the instant response and interactivity we've come to expect from desktop machines while keeping the software for the old mainframes up-to-date.

The latest release, announced last week, extends the package's reach from OS/2 into the Windows world.

Intersolv's product manager for Maintenance Workbench, Frank Hanou, noted that it's quite a step up from classic mainframe software maintenance, which often involves "source listings, Magic Markers and paper clips."

Mr. Hanou said the software offers advantages other than a snazzy interface. It works with all the parts of a mainframe program at once, so a programmer can see the broad impact of a change. And it creates a library of research done on a program, to help a new programmer who may step into the job.

The package, which sells for about $4,000, depending on the specific setup, is already running on more than 1,000 workstations for about 60 large corporate customers, Mr. Hanou said.

Allnet will market Bell Atlantic services

Allnet Communication Services Inc. will be marketing Bell Atlantic Mobile's cellular services in nine areas, including Baltimore and Washington.

The deal will give Allnet customers the advantage of getting a single bill for cellular, long-distance, "800" and calling-card calls, as well as other services, the companies said.

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