There are two kinds of Microsoft products that fail because of lousy timing. Some, such as the Zune, die because they arrive too late. But Microsoft is at least as likely to enter markets far too early, before the technology is up to the challenge at hand, and sometimes before consumers know why they should care about a category.
One failure of this second sort was WebTV, which began as an independent startup in 1995 and was acquired by Microsoft for $425 million in 1997. The company built a box that let you browse the web on your TV — over dial-up — and for a while, there was a widely-held assumption that we’d all be doing that, with one device or another, before long. Instead, WebTV never amounted to much. By the time Microsoft renamed it MSN TV in 2001, it was already pretty obscure.
So obscure, in fact, that I was stunned to learn that it’s still with us. But only until September 30. That’s the day that Microsoft is shutting down the service, forcing the stragglers who use it to find another way to get online. The company’s closure FAQ spells out the details.
I don’t think I ever used MSN TV, but I tried the original WebTV and liked it. It managed to do surprisingly crisp typography on a standard-definition CRT TV, and did a good job of making getting on the Internet painless in an era when many people weren’t sure how to go about doing it. I was also impressed with the ambition, at least, of a second-generation version, which had a built-in hard drive and used the vertical blanking interval (VBI) of over-the-air broadcasts to download video in the middle of the night, when you weren’t otherwise using your WebTV box and landline. Microsoft even built WebTV into Windows 98.
Why didn’t WebTV live up to expectations? In part, it was because it turned out that there weren’t all that many people who wanted to surf the web and use e-mail on their TVs. (A goodly percentage of the ones who did were rather old, and WebTV/MSN TV found a niche as a product for senior citizens.) And then the VBI downloads that I found intriguing became a technological dead end as the world moved on to broadband and — eventually — streaming video over wireless networks.
Microsoft’s viable TV gizmo turned out to be the Xbox, a platform that started out as a game console but which has gradually added WebTV-like features. Just last year, the Xbox 360 added a web browser, a feature which will also be part of the Xbox One.
In an odd way, Microsoft and the rest of the tech industry are still trying to figure out the question WebTV posed in the mid-1990s: How do folks want to use the Internet in the living room? If we’re having trouble answering it in 2013, I don’t think it’s surprising that WebTV never managed to be much more than a blip — even in its heyday, such as it was.