Microsoft tips nod at Wink

Wink Communications might not be all things to everybody in interactive TV, but Microsoft was sufficiently impressed with the company's technology to hand over £30 million in return for a stakeholding partnership.

With the advent of interactive TV, "video is going to remain prevalent on television, but there will be lots of informational services wrapped around that video," said Wink CEO Maggie Wilderotter.

"The ability to use digital technology will enable people to watch video, get more information about news stories or sporting events, buy merchandise, tickets, whatever -- it's only going to be a benefit to consumers," she claimed.

Wink provides an end-to-end system, bringing together cable, satellite and broadcast TV providers, and providing various tools and services that let them add an interactive element to shows and advertisements. Ads, for example, can include a "call to action" allowing viewers to instantly respond to a message via their remote controls; the system uses the same technology that enables pay-per-view TV.

More valuable than any one servicve in particular is the network of about 70 partnerships Wink has assembled among all the various television camps. That was enough to draw Microsoft's investment, as well as an agreement to add Wink's services to its future television platforms.

Staking out territory For Microsoft, it's the latest in a series of investments aimed at the heart of PC-TV convergence.

This particular buying spree began with Microsoft's acquisition of WebTV, which lets people surf the Web from their television, and also adds data elements to television programming. But Microsoft has always thought of WebTV merely as a foot in the door to something far greater.

"Today, they're stuck with bandwidth limitations that are going to be here for quite a while, and they have to go with things like Wink, and streaming media tools, and build them into the platform," said analyst Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. "They have to take these baby steps toward the day when television and the PC are fully integrated."

What Microsoft hopes will be the real boon of Friday's partnership is the momentum it could add to the interactive TV specifications put forward by the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF), whose founding members include television networks and Intel, as well as Microsoft. Wink also supports the specifications.

"One of the things that's plagued interactive TV for years now is that everybody in the game has had their own proprietary way of doing things," said Paul Mitchell, Microsoft's senior group manager for interactive television. "By combining the talents here, we anticipate we'll be able to end up with more interactive content compliant with [ATVEF], sooner."

For Wink, the Microsoft alliance -- following a recent investment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's firm Vulcan Ventures -- is an important validation of its plans.

"That endorsement for a company like Wink is huge. A lot of people looked at Microsoft as a competitor with Wink," Wilderotter said, claiming the deal eliminates confusion in the marketplace.