Before TVs were "smart," before Boxee and Roku and Apple TV and TiVo, there was just WebTV. Steve Perlman's brainchild was designed in the 1990s to marry the computer and television, and though its technology is now widely used Microsoft has decided it no longer has use for the product it bought for $425 million in 1997. Now known as MSN TV, Microsoft has announced that it will cease operations in September of 2013.
Google TV before Google TV
WebTV was, like so many inventions, born of necessity. Perlman needed a graphical display for his PC, so he hacked into the one he already owned – his television. The resulting product was a crude mix of set-top box and home theater PC, and it was good enough to make Businessweek's Stephen H. Wildstrom declare in 1996 that "I think we may now have the product that could turn the World Wide Web into a mass-entertainment medium." In a way, it was Google TV long before Google TV. Before Google, even.
The WebTV kit (box, keyboard, remote) browsed the web and checked email without requiring a lot of extra and expensive hardware, and in April of 1997 Microsoft bought the company in order to integrate it with Windows CE and take over living rooms across America. It made a lot of money for Microsoft, too, from a monthly subscription service it offered. But between heavy competition from AOL TV and others, and the onset of a revolution in both how we watch TV and how we browse the web, WebTV eventually lost its footing. The division was broken up, the product was renamed to MSN TV, and many of its members went to the Xbox team or to work on Mediaroom. Perlman eventually left, too, and later founded OnLive, a company with obvious ties to the WebTV idea.
That idea – marrying your TV and the internet — remains potent, as companies like Boxee, Roku, Aereo, and the like try to crack the same code. For Microsoft, the dream lives on in the Xbox One, which has everything from the WebTV's chunky looks to its method of controlling your living room. It probably looks very familiar to Steve Perlman.