Sunday, October 6, 2013

So long, WebTV

Some of you may remember WebTV, the "classic" set-top box service which started operation on September 18, 1996, and may be surprised to know that even after Microsoft bought it and turned it into MSN TV with their usual lack of finesse, the service lived on. In fact, MSN TV remained in operation until just a few days ago, when it was finally shut down on September 30th, 2013 just a couple weeks after its 17th birthday.

WebTV, just like it says, was intended for televisions with correspondingly larger fonts and less screen real estate. However, this wasn't really a problem in the early days of the Web when most computers were still limited to 800x600 or less, and while its 112MHz MIPS CPU was not really up to the task even then, it was supported by backend servers that pre-optimized sites for the screen and its 33.6kbps modem. Although the service got off to a slow start, by 1998 it was profitable and had nearly 325,000 users; by 1999 it had 800,000 (as late as 2005 it still grossed $150 million a year with a 65% profit margin). This rapid growth attracted Microsoft, who acquired the company in 1997, later rebranding it as MSN TV in 2001.

Microsoft's strategy then was of course to extend and extinguish, and a captive set-top platform that was theirs to control was a potentially powerful weapon. To encourage sites to design for the constraints of the machine, Microsoft designed a software simulator that mimicked the layout and screen limits, complete with a software remote. I don't remember when I picked it up, and Microsoft hasn't offered it for download in years, but there it was still on my home fileserver. The Mac version, below, runs on any Power Mac with System 7 and will also run on OS 8 and 9 and Classic under 10.4 (click to enlarge).

The part I find most amusing is that it even makes phony touch-tone sounds when it starts up and plays the "Connecting to WebTV" sounds like a real set-top of the time would. (Hint: change the startup URL; it's no longer valid. You can set it to something else in the preferences. Also consider setting it to PAL screen size, since it's a bit larger than the NTSC screen shot above.) In fact, the whole experience is incredibly detailed; you can even get into the TV and channel menus, (try to) look at listings or adjust the screen and TV settings, all from within the simulated WebTV interface just as you would have had to do back then.

Sadly, the browser has aged badly as one would expect. Keeping with the simulation's veracity, you will need to use the keyboard or the on-screen remote to scroll and select links. It has some limited scripting and Floodgap's pages, which are admittedly written to work with browsers as old as Netscape 3.0, still look okay on it, but searching Google is a little iffy and sites depending on CSS or with loads of embedded tables turn into narrow strips of text sprawling across the page. While it had an advanced SSL implementation for the time, and its encryption strength finally convinced the US government to stop classifying browser encryptions as munitions, it's almost useless with today's security standards.

But that's not what we're here today for. We're here to bow our heads in memory of a pioneering service that, despite several hardware upgrades and incremental improvements, is now mostly obsolete thanks to today's ubiquitous mobile devices and greater broadband availability. And that's good news, even as WebTV slips into that great modem pool in the sky. At least now we'll get to preserve a little bit of history.

You can download it from the Floodgap gopher server's archives (install OverbiteFF in TenFourFox if you haven't already).

Still working on getting 24 off the ground. Very crashy still, but it's getting further and further through the process. No ETA on a beta yet, but shooting for the next two weeks.

1 comment:

  1. zombie post alert!! Sorry but just found this and had to mention. I actually have WebTV for the Dreamcast based on WinCE (real disc not burned CD-R). Nice to see that we can play with one created for the Mac.


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