Apple certainly has the head start on the potentially lucrative (at the price of this hardware and software, someone had better make some money at it) multimedia market, but as Mark H. Anbinder pointed out last week, IBM wants in on the action too. Although it turns out that IBM’s snazzy full-screen full motion video demonstration had some special hardware behind it (more next week when we find out all the details), other companies want some of the pie too, and where there’s a pie, could Microsoft be far away? No.
Remember the $800 CDTV, Commodore’s primarily unnoticed attempt to enter the consumer multimedia market? If not, don’t worry, despite the fact that CDTV was actually an Amiga in sheep’s clothing (see TidBITS-062/20-May-91 for the details at the time), CDTV hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm, due in part, I’m sure, to Commodore’s inability to sign up enough third party content providers. Microsoft and Tandy hope to do just that, although I doubt they’ll equal Hurricane Andrew in importance.
The hardware comes from Tandy, and they call it the Video Information System, or VIS, and hope to sell it for about $700. The software, as usual, comes from Microsoft in the form of Modular Windows, which Microsoft optimized for use with a television as a display device. Microsoft obviously wants certain developers already working on Windows products to scale them down for use with Tandy’s VIS, and since Modular Windows for VIS is based on Windows 3.1, developers shouldn’t have too much trouble, assuming they have already mastered programming Windows, something which various programmers of my acquaintance have likened to eating okra (that ought to get both okra aficionados and Windows programmers, all in one sentence :-)).
Of course, the software interface concerns us the most. Modular Windows, being Windows at heart, relies on DOS, and yes, Tandy’s VIS includes both MS-DOS and Modular Windows in ROM (warning, acronym level rising!). So you have no choice about the underlying operating system, but the interface? Microsoft claims that they have tested the interface with hundreds of users (I wonder who?) to ensure that users can see and use the software easily from ten feet away. According to Microsoft, multimedia titles will feature large, three-dimensional buttons and colorful icons and support a simple point-and-shoot operation with a remote control. In theory, users won’t have to know that VIS uses DOS and Windows at all, but frankly, given Microsoft’s interface "successes" with computer users who are theoretically slightly brighter than the average bear, I’d advise average bears to stay in hibernation.
At first, VIS players will look and act much like CD players that sit on top of and attach to television sets. Later on the VIS player will support alternate methods of delivering information, most likely through cable television channels. All of this sounds like Commodore’s CDTV, although Commodore was a mere rhesus monkey to Microsoft and Tandy’s 2000 pound gorilla. Supposedly Tandy and Microsoft have over 50 developers committed to over 100 VIS titles, including a number of children’s reading development and classic literature titles. Joy and rapture! Can you imagine reading the complete works of Shakespeare on TV? My copy of Shakespeare’s complete works numbers almost 1000 pages of small print, not something I’d care to experience in large letters and short lines, even if I can switch to clips of various productions of Hamlet while perusing the text. Of course, I’m being negative here, not having seen what they propose in terms of "classic literature titles," but unless they can equal at least what Voyager has done with the neat Expanded Books, I’ll stick to my awkward thousand page book or the free ASCII texts from Project Gutenberg.
Even though Tandy will sell the VIS system in consumer electronics and department stores, it seems that they plan to market the titles as software. I can’t imagine that the sort of people who buy software will evince all that much interest in VIS – why bother when you have a computer that can do as much and more? If VIS is to succeed then, it will have to break consumer molds and not just try to slip another sheepskin-covered computer into consumer electronics stores.
As it stands, the hardware specs sound pretty good, including VGA/MCGA compatible video modes on a television; new video modes that support up to 16 million colors; hardware-assisted animation processing; three types of high-quality audio (CD-Audio, synthesized MIDI, and wave-form) played simultaneously for cool effects; and DOS, Windows and multimedia PC (MPC) software and content capability (what the heck would anyone do with that?). In the end, you’ve got hardware that might approach an Amiga, which most people consider the best multimedia machine commonly available. But does the Microsoft and Tandy gorilla have enough weight to muscle a $700 VIS into the hearts and homes of consumers? Not this one.
Microsoft VIS Program — 206/936-1505
Tandy — 817/878-4852
Microsoft & Tandy propaganda