WevbTV screenshot (via Wayback Machine)

A Requiem for WebTV

It’s not too often that I am reminded of something I wrote 17 years ago and am able to read it without cringing, at least not too much. This happened over the weekend, after Microsoft quietly announced that it was shutting down its MSN TV service at the end of September. The Verge linked to a 1996 BusinessWeek  column in which I said that the brand-new WebTV might be the “product that could turn the World Wide Web into a mass-entertainment medium.”

That call was premature by about a decade, but the folks who created WebTV–Steve Perlman, Bruce Leak, and the late Phil Goldman–and soon sold it to Microsoft for $425 million were onto something important. WebTV was the first of a long line of set top boxes designed to merge standard television with what we now call over-the-top internet video, and effort that continues today with Apple TV, Google TV, Roku, Xbox, and many others.

WebTV and its successor MSN TV never found much success. It turned out that not very many people wanted to see a mostly text internet on their TV sets, nearly all of which were then CRTs. The WebTV engineers did a brilliant job of making text readable on displays never designed for it, but there were limits to what they could accomplish. Content was a huge challenge, especially with the standard connectivity coming through a 28 kilobit per second dial-up modem (later versions supported broadband.) As I wrote:

WebTV also requires a Web that is much more visual than today’s. This is an entertainment appliance, not a research tool. You can’t save or print pages. On the other hand, an online tour of an art gallery was beautiful on WebTV. Support for a number of multimedia technologies, including Java programs, RealAudio sound, and QuickTime movies, was missing from my prototype, but they should be ready soon.

It’s easy to imagine what’s needed to make TV-based browsing take off: shopping, with click-to-order multimedia catalogs. (WebTV comes with a slot for the “smart” credit card of the future.) Movie guides with previews on demand. Travel information, with on-screen booking services. Online games.

Perhaps most important, setting up WebTV was drop-dead simple to set up and use at a time when most people  were still struggling with recording on VCRs.

We are still a long way from the perfect, do-everything set top box. But WebTV was an important first step on the path that is getting us there.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

634 thoughts on “A Requiem for WebTV”

  1. For twenty years, companies have been trying to turn the TV into another computer. This made perfect sense to me and I was perfectly wrong.

    The TV, (as I’ve since learned) is a shared device, it is a passive device. Using it as a computer makes no sense at all. Computers are much better computers than TVs will ever be.

    The modern trend is to see TVs as just one of many screens available for displaying content. Computers will continue to be used to create and manipulate content and TVs will continue to be used to display content.

    It’s all so (painfully) obvious to me now that I’ve had it beaten into my head so many times by so many others. 🙂

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