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Take It Anywhere, Even If You Never Wanted To

Motorola's ski-n-chat outerwear is just one example of how phone industry players are assuming a higher profile in the escalating race to create do-it-all digital devices. For several years, the Consumer Electronics Show has showcased a growing rivalry between makers of computers and traditional electronics; this year the phone and cable companies are muscling in on the action.

SBC Communications Inc. plans to outline details of the Internet-based video service it aims to start selling to consumers this year, competing head-to-head with cable companies. Cable company gearmakers are showcasing their latest set-top boxes with video-recording capabilities, along with such innovations as the "mosaic channel" system that DirecTV Group Inc. plans to introduce soon for simultaneously watching multiple TV channels on one screen.

Orb Networks shows off a service that lets subscribers remotely access their digital media files from their home PCs, and even watch live television, on gadgets with Internet connections. (Joe Cavaretta - AP)

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Car video systems are big here, too. Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. announced plans to add video programming to its satellite broadcasts next year. Delphi Corp. announced a deal with Comcast Corp. to develop a system for letting people save TV programming from home and move it to their cars. The idea, of course, is to keep the kiddies happy in the back seat.

Traditional electronic giants -- Sony Corp., Samsung Electronics Co., Panasonic and others -- are hardly sitting still. LG Electronics Inc. is showing off a giant plasma TV with a 160-gigabyte hard drive and built-in video recording capability that should give TiVo a scare.

Much of the buzz, though, is around offerings from start-ups and computer companies, especially pocket TV and video-to-go doodads. Some have been on sale for months, others debut this week, and still others won't reach stores until later this year -- if at all.

At a press conference yesterday, Sony showed off its new Portable PlayStation, a nine-ounce gizmo that plays video, music and games and goes on sale in the United States in March. No doubt the portable console will be popular, but Sony can't be too happy that it has been upstaged by a computer maker -- Apple Computer Inc. with its wildly popular iPod -- in the race to make the hottest portable music player.

Among the many newcomers here hoping to make a splash in the nascent market for portable media players:

Sling Media Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., is showing a $250 box it plans to start selling in March that lets people with home computer networks stream live TV shows to any connected computer, including laptops. Unlike Orb Networks and TiVo (which announced its new TiVoToGo mobile video service this week), Sling Media charges no monthly service fees. The company plans to offer the live TV capability later for cell phones and portable media players.

Smart Video Technologies Inc. is launching a live TV service that will stream video to cell phones and WiFi-equipped portable devices. The service includes on-demand video, too, along with a mix of televised news, weather, sports and entertainment. The company bills itself as "the ultimate in mobile television."

Following a planned speech by Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates on Wednesday night, Intel Corp. chief executive Craig R. Barrett was slated to open the festivities this morning with a keynote titled "Upgrade Your Life."

All of which raises the question, are people ready for this "upgrade"? Do we need or want it?

Probably not, but that won't stop digital technology from going mobile, as this year's show amply demonstrates. After all, inventors have been pursing a technological manifest destiny for centuries by exploring what is possible and then living with the consequences.

Why should the 21st century be any different?

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.

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