The struggles of WebTV

A screenshot of the WebTV homepage in its first year
A screenshot of the WebTV homepage in its first year (Photo from TheFreeDictionary)

The growing popularity of the internet in the late ‘90s had people curious as to what the web was all about. More people started going out and buying computers and subscribing to an internet service provider to explore what this emerging technology had to offer. For some, it was harder to access. Whether because of financial struggle, tech illiteracy, or only minimal interest, using the web, let alone owning a computer was considered either a luxury, or something only for those who had an interest. A low-cost alternative, WebTV, was invented for these types of users.

Creation and concept

WebTV was a service launched in 1996 that allowed users without a computer a way to access the internet through their TV. Its special cable box-like hardware provided users a cheaper, watered-down way to see what the web had to offer. The WebTV browser also allowed users to watch TV while browsing, download TV schedules overnight, and check e-mails.

The idea came to creator Steve Perlman while browsing a Campbell’s soup recipe website on the early web. He thought the information could be useful to many, but knew that not everyone at the time had convenient access to the internet. By combining the web with television, the then-dominating market, more information would find its way to more people.

The internet in an unorthodox way

The majority of internet users at the time accessed the internet traditionally through a computer. For those who either could not afford a computer, or thought they would have a hard time operating a computer, WebTV gave those users the opportunity to try out a basic version of the internet.

The service didn’t provide users with a full-web experience due to its minimalist design and function. The browser also lacked support for certain features, such as Flash, which was growing in popularity near the end of the ‘90s. Web pages did not always show up properly, and there were very few specifically optimized for WebTV. Despite its limitations, the product was accessed enough to grab Bill Gates’ attention. Microsoft eventually struck a deal with Perlman and purchased WebTV on April 6 1997. It would eventually be re-named MSN TV in 2001. **[Product will be referred to as WebTV for the remainder of this article unless necessary to context]**

The MSN TV client
The MSN TV client (photo from Udger)

Different versions of WebTV were released over the years, each offering few new updates per release. MSN TV was used to develop the Rogers’ Interactive TV service in Canada, which could be thought of as a more advanced version of WebTV due to its similar features. For a short time, WebTV collaborated with Sega to create WebTV for Dreamcast, which was a service that could be accessed via Sega Dreamcast video game consoles for a short time in the late ‘90s.

Screenshot of WebTV on a Sega Dreamcast
Screenshot of WebTV on a Sega Dreamcast. Two products that never got the chance to reach their full potential. (Photo from Segaretro)

Doomed for failure

Despite being a useful idea, WebTV never truly succeeded in providing a popular or reliable alternative to traditional internet access.

Its first problem came down to the timing of its release. It can be argued that it was invented too late. By the late ‘90s, it wasn’t uncommon for those curious about the internet to go out and buy a computer rather than seek out alternatives. A household name at the time like Windows 95 or Windows 98 was more likely to encourage purchase of a full computer instead of the lesser-known Web TV client. Besides that, computers could of course do more in the first place. But even in just strictly-web abilities, web standards were centred around its development on computers, therefore being less compatible with the WebTV browser.

Lack of compatibility contributed to its second reason for failure. Although it was meant to be a simpler way to access the internet, it became more challenging for WebTV to keep up with the growth of the web and computer advancements in general. As breakthroughs in web features, designs, and functionality were made, it was harder for WebTV to compete. Overall, the differences in TV screen and computer monitor resolutions didn’t allow for most websites to display well on TV sets, some not even displaying at all due to lack of browser support.

Though its simplicity could have saved it, simplicity did not necessarily equate to user-friendliness. In hardware, the first release of WebTV did not have its own standalone keyboard, forcing users to type in every letter manually through a remote control selection. Inconvenience also found its way to the security side of WebTV. Security problems were persistent throughout the service right from the beginning, as hackers could easily get into users’ accounts and terminate them, and also change the privacy policy without customers being aware.

WebTV’s target audience was always a minority. Its no surprise that the type of WebTV users were likely either those who considered themselves computer illiterate (for example, elderly people) or those who really didn’t care much about using the internet for things aside from basics such as browsing for simple information and perhaps sending e-mails. The combination of these types of users might as well have been described as a lack of interest in the making, assuming that any users who wanted to seriously pursue exploring more of the internet likely went out and bought an actual computer. As time went on and the popularity of the internet grew, computers were dropping in price, allowing more to make their way into more households. People had all the reason in the world to switch from WebTV to a computer, but not much of a reason to switch from a computer to WebTV.

What’s most surprising about WebTV is that despite being a flopped product, the service ran until Sept. 30 2013. Yes, 2013. The exact date nearly three years ago. One can only wonder how it managed to survive that long into what we know today as our modern web.

Final thoughts

While there were more cons than pros when it came to WebTV, there is some good that can be said about the product.

The concept as a whole for a computer-alternative was a nice idea. Steve Perlman once said that interactive TV was something he had been working on for his “entire life” and that he knew it would be “a way of bringing computers to average people.” Accessibility on the World Wide Web was something Tim Berners-Lee emphasized right from the beginning, so Perlman contributed to that goal with his creation.

WebTV can also be seen as a pioneer product to alternative web-access products we know today, such as mobile browsing. Even with “smart TV” products such as Apple TV, each client follows the foundation that was meant to achieve WebTV’s goal as a way to bring the internet to a television set.

WebTV doesn’t have much of a legacy as a successful or impressive product. Had it been improved on frequently during its lifespan, perhaps it could’ve proved itself to be more useful. Luckily for WebTV, what it can be credited for is its innovation in the world of interactive TV, leading up to what we know today.

Were you a WebTV user? Share your story in the comments.

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Author: The Netstorian

Internet culture enthusiast and creator of The Netstorian.

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