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Most of us have relied on streaming services to stay semi-sane during COVID-19 shutdowns. Did you know your smart TV has its roots in WebTV, a product that was truly ahead of its time (and its available bandwidth)?

Launched Sept. 18, 1996, WebTV was co-founded by Steve Pearlman, coincidentally the inventor of QuickTime. The concept was simple: a TV that allowed you to browse the web using only a remote control. WebTV’s target audience skewed older, with its founders betting that older consumers wanted an easy option for surfing that didn’t involve sitting at a desk. Microsoft liked the idea and acquired WebTV for $425 million in 1997.

Consumers didn’t catch on

While it’s easy to shrug WebTV off as a flop, a better postmortem would be that it was invented at the wrong time. TV screens had a low resolution compared with rapidly developing PCs—and accessing non-TV-optimized websites via dial-up was painfully slow, as this YouTube video demonstrating a visit to the 1996 Friends website shows. The WebTV system was also proprietary, making its incompatible with advances in open source software.

Despite WebTV’s challenges, Microsoft hung in there with the product until 2013. Along the way, Microsoft changed the name to MSN TV, gave the device away for free to MSN subscribers and incorporated hardware from its Xbox system.

WebTV did have its own malware incident. In 2005, a Louisiana man was sentenced to six months in prison for sending an email to WebTV users that caused them to unknowingly dial 911.

Photo: Dmitri Ma / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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