Microsoft retires WebTV, but the concept lives on

July 8, 2013 | 08:39

Tags: #broadband #celeron #dial-up #internet #modem #set-top-box #steve-perlman #webtv

Companies: #microsoft #mips

Microsoft has confirmed that it is getting out of the smart TV game, shuttering the long-running MSN TV service which predicted the rise of internet-connected set-top boxes but launched a decade or so too early to be a success.

Launched as WebTV back in 1996, the idea behind the service was simple: because computers were still expensive and complex, give users a thin-client system which would connect to their existing television and let them go crazy on what people were still calling the Information Superhighway with perfectly straight faces. Created by Steve Perlman, the story goes, after seeing an early website with recipes for Campbell's various flavours of soup - thus suggesting that non-technical types might get a kick out of the 'net - the company worked in secret claiming it was researching 'sleep deprivation, poor diet and no social life for extended periods,' a riff on the traditional vision of nerds and hackers.

Despite raising funding of $1.5 million in 1995 to develop the WebTV Internet Terminal, Perlman's company nearly folded when a deal with Sony fell through. Because of a clause in the contract that gave Sony exclusive distribution rights to the set-top box hardware, with WebTV itself planning on raising funds through charging a subscription fee for its dial-up internet access service, the device was slow to launch and nearly didn't make it. Additional funding was found, and Philips joined as an early non-exclusive partner - giving Sony the impetus it needed to review its decision and sign a new non-exclusive agreement of its own.

The device, which in its original incarnation included a 33.6Kb/s dial-up modem, 112MHz MIPS-based processor, 2MB of RAM, 1MB of flash storage and just 2MB of ROM space for the entire operating system, was hailed as the first TV-based web access system - ignoring computers like the Commodore Amiga, which could access the web with an optional modem and featured composite and RGB outputs for connection to a TV. While initial sales were slow, an explosion of interest in web technologies saw the company rise to around 800,000 subscribers - each paying $19.95 a month for their connectivity - by the turn of the century.

Even its initial sales, accounting for around 56,000 units, was enough to interest Microsoft. Just 20 months after its founding, Microsoft acquired WebTV in a $503 million deal and set about developing TV-based products for the company. WebTV was rebranded as MSN TV back in 2001, with the company launching its last hardware iteration - the Celeron-powered MSN TV2 - back in 2004. Since then, while the hardware hasn't been available, the service itself - including the old-fashioned dial-up service - was still running.

The era of WebTV is coming to a close, however. Microsoft has confirmed that it plans to shut the service down on the 30th of September. 'WebTV started in 1996 with the goal to bring new people "online" and to give those already online an easy, hassle-free means of accessing the internet from the comfort of their homes' the company has explained in an email to customers. 'Later, MSN TV 2 was released with vastly greater power and features. Since then, the web has continued to evolve at a breathtaking pace, and there are many new ways to access the internet. Accordingly, we have made the difficult decision to end the MSN TV service.'

With computers like the sub-£30 Raspberry Pi now able to access the internet just fine through near-ubiquitous broadband connectivity, Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile broadband, it's clear that MSN TV's days are numbered with Microsoft finally pulling the plug. That doesn't mean the technology won't live on: Perlman's Silicon Valley Microsoft division, which he ran following the company's acquisition of WebTV, had a hand in every Microsoft product that ever connected to a TV set - including the software component of Sega's ill-fated Dreamcast and Microsoft's own, somewhat more successful, Xbox family.

Those with existing MSN TV products will be able to use them as Media Centre Extenders following the closure of the service, or risk flashing the BIOS with a third-party hack in order to install Linux and turn the system into a fully-functional - if specification-light - PC. Now that smart TVs, which include WebTV-like technology built in, are becoming increasingly common, it's clear that WebTV was just a little ahead of its time - and while very few people use a TV set for serious web browsing the increase in bandwidth available as a result of broadband technologies gave birth to streaming video services, the killer app that WebTV lacked at launch.

For those small number of you patiently loading this article through a 33.6Kb/s dial-up connection via your first-generation WebTV box, more details of the closure are available in Microsoft's FAQ page.
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