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Vodafone squeezes internet into TV

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Vodafone believes the time is right for an internet-on-TV box, undaunted by the fact that everyone else has been trying to do the same thing for decades.

Vodafone's new Webbox squeezes the technology into a battery-powered, keyboard-sized device, with an RCA connector and Opera Mini to deliver compressed pages over the mobile network. The Webbox will start in South Africa, with eyes on India, and retail at around €75 - plus connectivity of course.

That connectivity will come over GPRS, or EDGE where available, putting the bandwidth close to what the various internet set-top boxes could achieve during the first dot-com boom - all of which crashed and burned, from WebTV to OnDigital's on-net with half a dozen between. Television sets in the countries Vodafone is targeting haven't improved much since then either, so why does Vodafone think it can make the technology successful this time around?

Vodafone's box is cheap but is being subsidised, which was also the model back in 1990. RCA connectors will provide a slightly better picture than the RF modulation of the original boxes, but the limited resolution and inconsistent rendering of colours remain the same.

As do the social problems of how a TV is used: most TVs are in the corner of the room, too far away for dragging cables, and not arranged for singleton use, unlike the usefully small set used in Vodafone's demonstration.

...which reminds one of microcomputer use in the 1980s, more than set-top boxes of the 90s.

But it's Opera Mini that really changes things, for several reasons. We did have content-optimisation services in the 1990s, and several set-top services used them, but they were expensive to run (for the operator) and hard to keep updated with the latest technologies being used on a fast-changing internet. Internet development has slowed down considerably since then, and Opera's ability to incorporate changes should reduce that problem to manageable levels. Opera also has considerable experience in making the best of the TV's limited capabilities, as demonstrated on the Nintendo Wii.

But despite that it's hard to see the Webbox as anything more than an intermediate solution, even in developing markets. A Nokia N95 can do everything the Webbox can do, plus 3G connectivity, and you can take it with you when not sitting in front of the TV - a competitive threat that didn't exist in 1990. ®

Bill Ray led a team developing a set-top box for Swiss Telecom back in the happy days of the first boom, and still boasts a considerable collection of competitors' boxes from the time.

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