An inside view of the WebTV revolution that didn't happen

You might think it should have happened sooner. This week, Microsoft announced it would decommission its MSN TV (formerly WebTV) service. Even I didn't think it would last this long, and I was WebTV's greatest advocate back in the day. In fact, I was its official evangelist, hired by founder Steve Perlman and his company's PR agency as WebTV's national media spokesperson for a period leading up to and including the product launch.

In 1996, WebTV was tech's hottest startup, considered a blazing harbinger of the future, all for pretty good reasons. WebTV was primarily an internet popularization play during an era of widespread uncertainty about computers in the home and the value of being online. If tablets and smartphones represent a Steve Jobs-ordained post-PC era, WebTV can be seen in retrospect as a pre-PC computing category. In my view, it isn't modern web-connected TVs that finally killed WebTV (MSN TV) -- it's the mobile revolution that did it.

It's easy for the tech community to forget what digital life is like for mainstream users who don't have particular interest in gadgets, operating systems, product variations and the most basic underpinnings of their digital experiences. Many people don't know what a browser is. And why should they? Before computers, consumer technology was transparent. There wasn't much of a learning curve to operate a telephone or television. That, in a nutshell, was the rationale of WebTV.

In discussions with Perlman in the summer of 1996, we hammered out talking points for the upcoming media push. Perlman emphasized over and over the ease of WebTV. It took the internet off a multi-function platform and put it on a single-function device (the TV) that everyone knew how to use.

Anyone who has assisted senior citizens with computers understands the viability of WebTV's premise (of course, I am generalizing about seniors' adeptness with computers). Over many years I have observed one insistent tendency in people who have difficulty operating computers. Even those who become adroit in certain uses do so by memorizing a vertical instruction set, rather than understanding the platform horizontally. My mother, a children's book author, adopted computers in the 1980s, recognizing the clear advantage of word processing. She knew the DOS commands she needed to produce a manuscript. Later, she had much more difficulty with Windows because of its horizontal, multitasking interface. She stuck with DOS for writing, and finally learned how to look at her investment portfolio in the Windows environment. That Windows computer became a Yahoo! Finance machine -- nothing else. Through meticulous effort, she learned the vertical task of checking the portfolio. (Hi, Mom.)

Perlman developed WebTV when the web was just emerging. Recognition was growing, but online citizens were a population of early adopters. I was at CompuServe during that time, and we were startled to learn that some of our users had bought a computer for the sole purpose of accessing the internet. That was eye-opening, breakthrough consumer behavior. The online experience was starting to drive computer adoption, but nobody knew how deeply into the market that phenomenon would penetrate.

Email was the killer app.

Email was the killer app. Perlman assumed a market of people would purchase email access for the home, but would not buy a bewildering and expensive computer to get it. Email, not being a design-specific product, was easy to deliver in an alternate format. It worked pretty well on WebTV. Web pages were much more difficult, even in those early-HTML days.

To solve the display issues, Perlman developed page-coding standards that reformatted web pages for the size and aspect ratio of small tube sets. Part of the business plan involved motivating web publishers to create WebTV-formatted versions of their sites, just as today's publishers create mobile-optimized versions. (The clueful ones do; amazingly, many still provide a wretched mobile experience in 2013.) It was a walled-garden dream of developing a WebTV version of the internet, just as AOL was doing at around the same time, and as Netscape attempted with its proprietary browser extensions. There was some uptake on the part of publishers, but most sites in the exponentially expanding web simply allowed WebTV to reformat their pages for better or worse. Sites were often ugly through the WebTV lens, and sometimes unusable.

A pre-production prototype of the original WebTV box, from 1996.

A pre-production prototype of WebTV, built in 1996.

The media tour began, and I spent several weeks on both coasts evangelizing the upcoming product on TV, on radio and in print. There was intense demand for interview time. That was why Perlman had to hand off the media speaking in the first place -- he couldn't handle the media requests and run his business. Handling interview questions from a wide spectrum of outlets, from tech publications to homemaking magazines, revealed a couple of repeating themes. Naturally, I fielded inquiries about product features and how to operate the thing. Print interviews were staged in hotel suites with WebTV set up and connected through its telephone modem for live demos.

But the main evangelizing came up around the question, "Why do people need the internet?" WebTV's launch was wedged into a historical moment when web discovery, doubt and confusion were battling in the public imagination. The solution provided an easy on-ramp piggybacked to a device everyone owned and understood. The media coverage was mostly fair, even when not exactly enthused, but off the record I often got a vibe from interviewers which, had they expressed it, would have been, "This thing is dead before it hits the street." And that sentiment was more about the internet than about WebTV delivery.

Mobile devices -- that's the real hammer to WebTV, I think.

Launch plans were ambitious. The original concept included wiring an entire town -- Webb, Miss. -- with WebTV, and flipping the switch in a televised outdoor ceremony at which I would pound the pulpit. To my acute disappointment, that plan was canceled, purportedly because the town's infrastructure couldn't handle the bandwidth load. But a fairly dazzling bit of staging did take place, when spotlight trucks rolled through New York on launch night, brilliantly displaying a giant WebTV logo on the sides of skyscrapers.

Assessing the demise of WebTV is probably unnecessary -- every proposed reason for Microsoft's decision has some truth. Computers have become household appliances. (Though still not easy or desirable for many people.) The long-sought internet / TV convergence is happening in new ways, most of them specialized to deliver TV-like content (not email). Mobile devices -- that's the real hammer to WebTV, I think. When the iPad was introduced, and was voraciously adopted by seniors, the tablet paradigm provided a new on-ramp to an internet experience. Touching an app icon is a vertical action, not unlike changing channels on a TV.

WebTV never scaled into the market as hoped, but its users were a loyal, dedicated, WebTV-loving lot. I wrote three editions of WebTV For Dummies. During the five-year life of that book, I received countless emails, every one of them typed on a TV, begging for new editions and updated information. That book sold outrageously well for a title that was launched into a population of about a million units -- a tiny market for a book.

Farewell, WebTV, which I never adjusted to calling MSN TV. You were an interesting, exciting startup at a crossroad of the internet's evolution.

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An inside view of the WebTV revolution that didn't happen