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November 26, 1998


Intel presents the future of business computing

Killing the idiot in the box: Pentafour veers AS/400 network for interactive television. And BPL readies Net TVs for December launch! Zasha Penn

If you put a potato on the couch, modern psychology will divulge that it really is an onion.

There are layers to a personality. And only a few peelings below you are bound to meet a thinking, feeling and even hyperactive human. Waiting to snatch control.

Email this story to a friend. That, of course, is an axiom. A supposition on which all evangelists of interactivity base their bets; especially those of a religion called Interactive TV.

Their promise is a big one. It involves turning your television into a jukebox, a personal information manager and a Web browser.

With a casual flick of the remote commander, it is possible to view a menu of several hundred films. Just select one. Or even two and three to line up your own primetime schedule. When the kids are home, access another library for some video games or online tutorials. Even the Internet and email could be a few more flicks away.

If you think this is for the Jetsons, think again.

Next month, the BPL Group is set to launch a range of Net TVs, high-end sets that will have all the Jetsonian potential you can care for. These televisions will then only need the appropriate delivery pipes to plug into their backs.

And that too may not be far to seek.

In a completely unrelated initiative the Madras-based Pentafour Software and Exports Limited is setting up a nationwide backbone of its high-powered IBM AS/400 computers. Their goal is to make content delivery possible for interactive cable television.

Interestingly, the two incidents presuppose each other.

And that is why there is a high probability that they might just coincide to create an entirely new dimension for India's young Internet services business.

Here's looking at them one at a time...

The Pentafour Software and Exports Limited network will act as the server to big cable television operators and Internet service providers in the country.

"We already have about 30 AS/400 machines in as many centres across the country. This will be expanded to about 150 centres during the next two years," V Chandrasekaran, managing director, Pentafour Software, has been quoted as claiming.

Under the proposal, cable television operators would be linked to the nearest mainframe owned by Pentafour. All the company's mainframes would be interconnected to create a national network.

A digital jukebox with a library of movies or education programmes specific to a particular region would be connected to the computer located in the area.

At the user-end, current plans require a PC-TV hybrid that Pentafour plans to sell for less than Rs 90,000. The price includes a 17-inch colour monitor.

The cable television operator or the ISP would be the interface between the PC-TV at the user-end and the backbone network of IBM computers and digital jukeboxes at the Pentafour end.

"Our core competence is software and we will stick to it. We will not get into providing either a cable television or an Internet service. We will, instead, be tying up with larger players in the segment," Chandrasekaran says.

"We are interested in a national presence. We already have operations in 14 countries. We could extend our services to Indian nationals in these countries during the second phase," he points out.

Pentafour Communications, a group company specialising in systems integration, is likely to assemble and sell the PC-TV hybrids.

Besides its expertise in software, Pentafour's largest competitive advantage in the proposed national interactive cable television service would be in costing.

"Our computers are not being utilised fully and we only have to leverage on these existing assets," Chandrasekaran explains.

"Putting up such a network of servers merely for a cable television operation would not be financially viable. As we will be using our servers for our software and training operations as well, our payback period would be low and the return on assets high," he is confident.

But digital technology, by definition, implies a few tweaks here and there can make disparate electronics talk to each other.

Hoping that the Internet gold rush will eventually spill over as interactive television, the Rs 30-billion BPL Group is engrossed in meeting a December launch deadline for a range of multimedia Net TVs.

BPL's Telecom Business Group is preparing set-top boxes costing less than Rs 10,000 that will convert a high-end television into an Internet-ready television. These would be offered alongside a whole range of Net TVs and multimedia TVs.

However, the Telecom Business Group has not worked out the pricing. That will largely depend on whether the excise department considers the new televisions to be computers or consumer electronics. In any case, Net TVs will cost significantly more than conventional sets.

BPL has also entered an alliance with microprocessor giant Intel to help build more sophisticated multi-usage convergence technology devices that address the demands of the expanding networked world.

The group is actually betting heavily on becoming a major IT player.

It has already set up a development centre in Bangalore on a 15-acre campus. Apart from the recreational facilities, the campus houses an intelligent building with video conferencing, ISDN connectivity and a dedicated Earth station.

Plans are afoot to open a couple of more centres in Pune and Thiruvananthapuram. BPL intends to set up a similar development centre in Atlanta some time next year. Offices in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia would support these initiatives.

The Bangalore centre is likely to bring in Rs 1 billion this fiscal and Rs 3 billion by the turn of the century.

The group has entered collaborations with Microsoft and Dialogic for 'interactive voice response' and call centres; with LHS for billing systems and Cap Gemini for system integration projects for telecommunications. And it is working on similar technology deals with companies like Siemens, Sanyo and Harris.

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