Acorn backs the box

June 9, 1995

Distance learning on broad-band networks with a TV as access point rather than the PC has moved a step closer in the United Kingdom.

Cambridge-based Online Media is developing an online service using optical fibre cables and a television set-top box as connection point.

A limited trial started last July and is moving into its second phase, with a wider consumer base in and around Cambridge.

Online Media is in discussion with a number of providers, including some in the education sector. Parent company Acorn Computers is acting as a compiler of educational content.

Acorn is building on the advantage of having a "clean screen" to work with as it develops ideas for the education services. But the early templates give an indication of likely areas.

The company intends to act in the next phase as a go-between, linking users with any number of content providers. It sees great potential for education, and will target all age groups.

The working titles for nine education sectors on the service include Expansions, which is aimed at distance learners, Education Matters for teacher training and in-service resources, and InClass, an open site for colleges and schools to put up their television versions of World-Wide Web welcome pages.

Other titles include Early Bird (pre-school), Override (for teenagers) and the Daily Parent which helps parents to link to their children's schools and colleges.

Roger Broadie, strategic marketing manager at Acorn, said the early trials had set the framework for user-led development.

"The key is that it is communally-based with the content providers feeding off reactions from users and tailoring their services," he said.

"Details of who is to pay, and how, are still being discussed. We believe that the way forward for online multimedia services is through the set-top box.

"We can argue about the precise figures but it's likely that the split between TV and PC access will be around 80 per cent to 20 per cent," added Broadie.

The set-top box, basically a customised Acorn Risc PC with handheld control panel, controls the flow of data, which can be pumped both ways at speeds of up to two megabits per second.

But the box may eventually look very much like a PC. Outline plans have been drawn up to provide a keyboard and mouse, as the trial moves into a higher gear next year.

* Schools and colleges with Acorn computers will be able to network them with PCs and Macintoshes, using a new Acorn server which runs Microsoft's Windows NT Server 3.5 operating system.

The server has an IBM-designed PowerPC processor, making this probably the first Acorn-badged product to use a RISC chip other than Acorn's own ARM.

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