NEW YORK -- Thomson, DirecTV and Microsoft's WebTV officially entered the hard-drive video recorder business by announcing a multifunctional interactive set-top box and service called UltimateTV.
The new device uses a powerful microprocessor and a large hard drive to enable users to receive DirecTV programming and WebTV Internet services, as well as adding the ability to record and store up to 30 hours of programming at one time.
At press time, hard-drive manufacturer Maxtor said it had reached an agreement with WebTV Networks to supply its new DiamondMax 60 hard drive -- which can be configured for up to 60GB of storage capacity -- for the UltimateTV platform.
Executives from both WebTV and Thomson said they will use hard drives from multiple companies for the UltimateTV system.
The device is also the first DirecTV receiver to incorporate two tuners, enabling owners of sets with picture-in-picture features to watch two channels on the same screen at the same time. The device will use one smart card, but will require connection to a dual-LNB-equipped satellite dish.
None of the companies was prepared to discuss pricing for the hardware or service fees, but Larry Chapman, DirecTV global digital media president, said all service billing will be handled through the satellite operator.
Customers will be charged a package price for their DirecTV service, number of additional DirecTV receivers in use, and a stipend for the video recorder functionality and "a limited" amount of WebTV connection time each month.
UltimateTV products and services will be ready for market in time for the holiday selling season, which Enrique Rodriguez, Thomson worldwide media products senior VP, said will be an explosive time for the hard-drive recorder category.
Currently, TiVo and Replay Networks market stand-alone video hard-drive video recorders, and WebTV and EchoStar offer the DishPlayer -- which like UltimateTV integrates WebTV and a video hard-disk recorder in a set-top receiver for the competing Dish Network satellite system.
A key difference with the UltimateTV device will be the dual-tuner capability and longer recording time. The device will record DirecTV signals in uncompressed highest-quality form. Connections on the box will include S-video and composite jacks, but no digital connections to pass through video or audio signals.
Two USB ports will be included, but these will accommodate future broadband DSL and Ethernet connections. A 56-Kbps telephone modem is built into each device for the Internet connection.
Bruce Leak, WebTV Networks president, said UltimateTV was designed first and foremost to support the television watching experience with interactive applications. Viewers can send and receive e-mail, play along with participating game shows, respond to television commercials and viewer polls, and do some Web browsing.
Unlike other WebTV devices in the market, UltimateTV was not expected to draw heavy Internet users, although the company will provide an unlimited Internet subscription rate for users who want full WebTV Network services.
The key to the device is a new onscreen program guide that will let viewers find programs they want to watch out to 14 days in advance and set the hard drive to record the show in full DirecTV standard digital picture and sound quality. By pressing the record button twice, the system will be set to record recurring episodes of a program or series every time it appears.
The DirecTV tuner will access most of the satellite providers' services (both standard and the Spanish-language Para Todos service), but will not receive DirecTV's HDTV channels.
The UltimateTV device will ship in two configurations, one with and the other without an 18-inch dual-LNB dish for the DirecTV service. The version that omits the dish will have a multi-switch connector to allow the use of other DirecTV terminals in the home.
DirecTV's Chapman said the service is considering offering an infomercial channel on the DBS platform to advertise UltimateTV. Also, the company could download programming about the product to the hard drive of UltimateTV demonstration boxes used in retail showrooms. The content could then be used to play endless-loop educational broadcasts to help direct consumer buying decisions at the point of sale.
Chapman said DirecTV will distance itself from selling competing recording devices tied to its DBS service, adding that the company's strategy has always been to tie with leading brand names for hardware and programming to offer consumers the greatest possible selection of products.
DirecTV is expected to join Philips in announcing a similar integrated DirecTV receiver and TiVo personal video recorder later this month. It has also discussed the possibility of integrating its system with the new AOLTV platform.