Switched On: Microsoft refreshes WebTV for a curious comeback

MSN TV 2 small

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment. Last week he asked TiVo to take a long, hard look in the mirror about their subscription fees:

To relive a few literal pages of dotcom-era history, point that Web browser to and see the humble Web beginnings of the company that came out of stealth operation in 1996 as WebTV Networks. Formed by ex-Apple superstars Steve Perlman (who would again seek to remake TV with the Moxi Media Center), Bruce Leak, and the late Phil Goldman, WebTV was to be the bridge for that part of the population that wanted to access e-mail and the Web but who were too intimidated to use a PC. The first WebTV "net-top boxes" were introduced by Sony and Philips, the same duo that would later introduce and also ultimately abandon digital video recorders powered by another subscription-minded startup called TiVo.

After eight years, a forgettable foray into interactive television dubbed WebTV Plus, and a $425 million acquisition, what is now MSN TV has seen many transitions in its time at Microsoft. Its subscription base, however, has languished considerably from its apex of a million scattered subscribers. With AOL having abandoned its TV-based Internet access product AOLTV, it's a good bet that WebTV would have been put to rest long ago had it not hid among the lint in the ample pockets of Microsoft. MSN TV's survival is still a longshot, but it is not yet ready to fade to black.

Unlike the Web site for Ceiva, another subscription-driven hardware product aimed at older users, features no hint of the Geritol generation eagerly awaiting the latest photos of their grandkids. With its ground-up recreation of the device, Microsoft has expanded the scope of MSN TV 2 and turned it into a digital media receiver for streaming music and photos from multiple PCs around the house; what they now awkwardly call an ?Internet and Media Player.? Unfortunately, at the risk of sounding like a player-hater, the interface for media sharing isn?t very polished; some client software for the PCs would probably help. The MSN TV 2?s digital media receiver interface diverges greatly from the streamlined interface of Windows XP Media Center as well as the standalone and Xbox-based Media Center Extenders.

Furthermore, a USB-based Wi-Fi adapter just adds more to the pricetag and the MSN TV 2 provides no facility for typing in a hidden SSID of an access point. MSN TV 2 can also display photos from a flash card, but again you have to add a reader via USB. The device itself, an asymmetrical silver and white box, is guaranteed to match nothing in your A/V environment unless you keep some late-model Apple gear near your television just in case you need it.

The interface has lost some of the simplicity and charm of WebTV?s, as well. With its new support for broadband and Internet Explorer 6 rendering engine, though, the product displays most Web pages surprisingly well and has long supported Flash, so you can read Strong Bad?s e-mails as well as your own. Less surprising is that other media file formats that compete with Microsoft?s own (such as QuickTime) are not supported, but to its credit it does handle MP3 with aplomb. Some secure banking and financial sites also work, but shamefully MSNTV 2 can?t manage Outlook Web Access at all.

The Web itself has also changed for the better since WebTV?s heyday. After being attracted to lots of gimmicky design elements and plug-ins, more Web sites are embracing the minimalist stylings of leading sites such as craigslist, Google, and many blogs. Indeed, the simple designs and niche content of blogs make them the perfect Internet television content. Several blog aggregation Web sites work nicely on the device, but Microsoft should have provided an RSS reader. Forget about the grandparents. Combined with short video clips, Internet radio, and streamed network music support, the MSN TV 2 may be the world?s best decaffeinated geek workout accessory.

Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, and MSN TV?s continues. The MSN TV 2 is a worthwhile, fun and medium-appropriate online experience, but its bifurcated target market may not carry the day. The remainder of WebTV?s core audience will be a tough sell to upgrade since they probably enjoy the stability of their online experience and aren?t likely to have broadband or a home network. On the other hand, the technophiles are likely to frown on MSN TV as being limited.

This is a nice-to-have product that simply won?t command its price for most users. Microsoft (or a competitor such as Opera Software) would serve consumers well by offering a good TV browser into other initiatives, particularly XP Media Center. It would be a great complement to the standalone TV-optimized Web sites being created for Microsoft?s modern-day living room beachhead.

[You can also read Engadget?s Gear Eye review of the MSN TV 2.]

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at