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Digital revolution: to be continued -- on TV

By DAVE GUSSOW Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 1999

Digital television will arrive in the Tampa Bay area late this year, but Jim Barry doesn't expect many people to notice.

"The average consumer is not going to buy a digital TV set this year," said Barry, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association. "There's still a big (price) gap between an average TV set and a digital set."

Most people won't be willing to spend $5,000 to $10,000 for a digital set, but that doesn't mean people won't eventually embrace digital TV.

More than 20-million people have been willing to spend more than $2,000 on a non-digital set, Barry said. CEMA expects 150,000 digital sets to be sold this year (20,000 have been sold to date). Barry compares that to first-year sales of videocassette recorders (200,000 in 1978) and compact disc players (35,000 in 1982) as an indication of a promising future for the technology.

Digital TV offers sharper pictures and, with improved sound systems, a home entertainment experience similar to a movie theater. Digital broadcasts started last year in the top 10 markets. They will be available from Tampa Bay area stations in November and will be phased in across the rest of the country by 2006.

People who do not have a digital TV by 2006 can buy set-top converters that will allow them to view the programing, if not the quality, of digital broadcasts. Those converters cost $600 and up.

Experts expect slow acceptance of the technology, with CEMA estimating that only 30 percent of U.S. homes will have digital sets by 2006, and not a great number of programs available in a digital format for years.

Barry points out that, unlike the debut of other electronics such as VCRs, more manufacturers are making more models of digital TVs for consumers to choose from in the early stages. As more are sold, prices likely will come down.

While the attention has focused on the television aspect, Barry says digital technology -- the same used in computers -- provides an opportunity to blend TV and data transmissions with interactive capabilities. Those include shopping, watching on-demand movies, paying bills and doing other things through your TV.

The impact of digital technology is being seen in other gadgets, too, Barry said.

DVD arrived in 1998, with more than 1.1-million players sold. Barry, also a gadget guy, showed off Panasonic's Palm Theater ($1,200), a portable DVD player, during his visit to the Tampa Bay area last week.

Such new components are a factor as home entertainment systems grow in popularity, particularly as manufacturers come out with more models that are ready to play straight from the box.

In addition to the Palm Theater, Barry's traveling gadget bag included a Sharp digital mini camcorder ($1,599) that fits in the palm of a hand, a JVC PocketMail ($99) for anywhere e-mail and a Sony Mavica digital camera ($599).

"We all want things easy (to use), we want quality and we want price," Barry said, anddigital devices offer that.

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