Before Apple TV, Roku or Boxee were even born, there was WebTV — Steve Perlman’s 1990s scheme to combine computers and TV sets. Microsoft bought WebTV for $425 million in 1997 with great fanfare and supported the new Internet TV service through many years.
Perlman needed a graphical display for his PC, so he hacked into the one he already owned — his television set. The resulting product was a crude mix of set-top box and home theater computer, and it was good enough to make Businessweek declare in 1996 that “I think we may now have the product that could turn the World Wide Web into a mass-entertainment medium.”
With Web TV, users could check e-mail and browse the Web over a TV set. It was a major innovation for the time.
Microsoft bought WebTV to integrate it with its Windows CE operating system and to experiment with new ways of delivering video programming into the home. It worked for a while, but soon lost its relevance in a sea of intense and increased competition. Microsoft renamed it MSN TV and many of its original members went to the Xbox team or to work on Mediaroom. Perlman eventually left as well.
Yet the idea of marrying the television set to the Internet still resonates to this day among competitors. Companies like Boxee, Roku and Apple now lead the pack. For Microsoft, its dream lives on in the Xbox One video gaming device.
“WebTV (later called MSN TV) 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,” Microsoft said in its announcement.
“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 on Sept, 30, 2013. We are working with our customers to ensure the transition is as seamless as possible.”