Half.com Shutting Down (Again) – Farewell Old Friend

On 31 August 2017, eBay's fixed-price marketplace site Half.com will be closing its doors for good. This makes me a little sad, and a lot nostalgic. This site did so much for me over the years, and I tried to do so much for it. It's sad to see it go.

So why am I so emotionally attached to a website? Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, when a cable TV subscription was still way out of my budget and before I had heard of Netflix (circa 2000), I used to watch all my TV shows and movies on DVD. I'd wait a year for my shows to come out on DVD, buy them used, and then sell them used. Half.com made the buying and selling insanely easy and I loved the crap out of the site as a user.

A few years later, as the first dot-com bust left me unemployed and a bit desperate for a while, I was able to use Half.com to sell every DVD, book, and CD I owned in order to pay rent for a month or two. With the huge difference is listing speed, this would have been completely uneconomical to do on eBay. I probably would have had to move back to Sacramento with my tail between my legs and would never have found the wonderful career I enjoy today. This was just the first time Half.com saved my career.

In 2003, eBay announced that it was going to close down Half.com some time in the next year. They apparently saw it as a duplicate of existing eBay functionality. I thought they were completely nuts. After a few weeks of going through the Five Stages of Grief over the news, I finally arrived at Stage 6: Defiance. I could accept that it was going away. But that didn't mean its heart had to die with it.

Ok, sure. eBay didn't realize what a gold mine they were sitting on with Half.com. They didn't recognize the power that a catalog-based marketplace could bring. But I did. And I was unemployed, scrappy, and passionate. So why shouldn't I start working on a business plan to build a new solution that took the best lessons from Half.com and built upon them to create something that could bring to life the unrealized potential of a catalog based marketplace.

That obsession of endless research and brainstorming lasted until spring of 2004, when my unemployment was interrupted by a wonderful new job. At eBay. Having been a eBay user since 1999, this was a dream come true (thanks Mike!). And that dream got even better later that year, when eBay decided not to close Half.com after all and I got assigned as one of the lead front end developers on the project to rebuild the entire Half.com site from scratch on eBay's platform.

Apparently, despite eBay's best efforts to duplicate Half.com functionality on eBay and drive users over to the main marketplace, the revenue from textbook sales and intensely loyal Half.com users was enough to justify keeping the site alive. That conversion project was the biggest project I had taken on as a web developer, and was some of the most fulfilling work I've ever done. It was my own personal Mary Ellen Carter.

This was also the project that first got me interested in becoming a product manager, and where I got to write my very first PRD (Product Requirements Document) for the content management system that runs Half's merchandising pages. Without my manager Rashid supporting my interest in switching sides, and Valerie's endless patience in mentoring me in the ways of Product, I'm not sure I would have known how to make the transition from dev to product.

As a self-taught developer who hadn't even had an email address until I was 23, I was never going to be the best coder in the room, next to kids who had been immersed in the internet since high school or college. But understanding the frustrations that normal non-technical people have with technology and finding ways to make that less painful while building a sustainable business? That I could build a career on. Which makes this the second time Half.com saved my career.

Unfortunately, the cost/benefit analysis that made Half worth keeping alive to eBay's management didn't translate to an appreciation of the potential of a catalog-based marketplace. I pitched the idea again and again while I was there and got only lukewarm reception from the Powers That Be. But I never really stopped thinking about that dusty old business plan I had started when they first threatened to close down Half.com.

Thirteen years later, eBay still hasn't done anything significant in the catalog-based marketplace space. They've created catalogs that they use on the back end to make the listing process easier. But the user experience is still all about finding items, not products, which eliminates most of the potential benefits of catalogs. And so, third party marketplaces like BrickLink (Lego bricks and sets), TCGPlayer (Magic and other collectible card games), and others are dominating their niche categories, while eBay continues to concentrate only on the horizontal “you can sell anything pretty well” model, rather than diving into the vertical “you can sell this one kind of thing extremely well” model. And the collectibles market really doesn't look that much different than it did in 2000.

eBay's investment in Half.com, in the past decade, has been effectively close to zero. CSS positioning wasn't quite reliable enough for production when we did that initial rebuild project, so we temporarily used an insane mess of nested tables for the layout, with plans to replace it with CSS later. The "temporary" code I wrote in 2004 will still be 99% the same when the doors close for good next week. Including my lucky charm <!--Keep Flying--> HTML comment at the bottom of the source code.

Now here we are. eBay has announced that it is closing Half.com. Again. This time I'm sad, but not upset. If they haven't taken Half.com seriously in the past decade, maybe it's time to let it go. And hopefully there's someone else out there, just as passionate about catalog-based marketplaces as I am, who will take the opportunity to finally do something about it.

And, if no one has done so by the time my kids are a bit older and my adventures in Fintech have reached their peak, perhaps I'll dust off that old business plan and give it a go myself.

RIP WebTV – The Internet For The Rest of Us

Today, we mourn the passing of a truly amazing product. After 17 years of faithful service, WebTV (later known as MSNTV) has officially shut down for good. WebTV had a huge impact on my life, both personally and professionally, so I thought I'd take a moment to talk about what I loved about WebTV, what I'll miss, and what I'll never forget.


I also recommend reading Brad Hill's farewell to WebTV article. He experienced a different side of the company's story than I did, and his article is a great read.
An Inside View of the WebTV Revolution That Didn't Happen
- By Brad Hill (no relation)


My Introduction to WebTV

I first discovered WebTV in 1997. I had just gotten my AA, couldn't afford to go on to a four-year university, and wasn't really sure where my career was headed. So when I met a cute redhead who told me about this great customer service gig in the bay area, I called in a favor to couch-surf with a friend for a while, moved down from Sacramento, and took the plunge.

[Aimee and Tash, I will never be able to properly repay you. Thank you!]

I joined the company a few weeks before it was acquired by Microsoft, but the negative impact from that didn't really start to manifest until a year later. That first year, WebTV was the quintessential startup environment. The CS team was housed in the same ratty garage on Alma St in Palo Alto that the company had been founded in. The building was crammed with young, idealistic 20-somethings who had their eyes set on changing the world, one user at a time.

It was a magical time for me. I was surrounded by great people, most fresh out of college and aching to make a dent in the world. We started out answering phones and responding to support emails from extremely passionate users. Within a year, we had outsourced the first-level calls and everyone on the team has chosen a new area of expertise to sink their teeth into. Some began running the Previews beta testing program, some went into data analysis to spot trends and feed the data back to the product side of the business, and some transferred to other teams like Usability or Engineering.

Me? I went into training and documentation. Shortly after starting there, I had camped out in front of my TV for a week and — with just a WebTV, a Laura Lemay book, and a Geocities account — taught myself HTML. So as we began to outsource front-line CS, I built a CS Agents intranet that would let anyone from any of the three call centers get to any of a few hundred support issues (the bulk of which I helped write) within three clicks. I took Andy MacFadden's incredible "Greater Scroll of Dialing Wisdom" document (still the best developer-written documentation I've ever read) and distilled it down to a Lesser Scroll for advanced connections agents, wrote a IRC chat FAQ and a scad of internal documentation, and flew to call centers in Florida, Kentucky and Salt Lake City to train the next wave of customer service agents, who would be the first point of contact with our wonderful users.

I even recreated a vitrual version of the WebTV Classic, Plus and DishPlayer services, using service screenshots tied together via imagemaps, so the CS agents who didn't have a WebTV box at their desk, or had to share one, could still follow along with users while explaining how to get connected. Now that the service itself is going dark, I have posted an archival version of this for posterity.

Those were the days. We would get calls from 70 year old users who were literally crying because they were so frustrated at not understanding how email worked, or how to get into a scrapbooking chat room. With patience and a healthy supply of metaphor, we'd explain it in a way they could grok, and send them on their way. And a few months later we'd get a call from the same user, complaining that the HTML in the website they were hand-coding on Angelfire wasn't working the way the expected it to. If we ever doubted for a moment the potential for a simple user experience to empower normal people to do truly mazing things, WebTV users would quickly set us straight.


WebTV's Original Mission

The original idea behind WebTV was simple. Provide an inexpensive, easy-to-use option for normal, non-technical people to get online. "The Internet for the rest of us" wasn't just a tagline, but a mission statement. If $2,000 for a PC seemed absurd, you could drop as little as $99 on a small device that plugged into your TV and gave you access to email, bulletin boards, IRC chat, and a rudimentary web browser, with as little pain as possible, for just $20/month. Add another $70 to replace the remote control with a wireless keyboard and you were off to the races.

While younger users (like me) might quickly outgrow the system and move on to PCs, the core WebTV users turned out to be the older or less technologically inclined half of the population, who didn't want to over-complicate their lives with too much tech, but still wanted to keep in touch with their out-of-town children, share baby photos through email, and connect through bulletin boards and chat with others who loved the same things they loved. Rarely have I ever met users who were so passionate about a product as WebTV users. To many of them, WebTV was the internet. And the fact that the WebTV service has stayed alive as long as it has is a testament to their devotion.


WebTV Plus, DishPlayer and TiVo

But getting the web to run on a TV was just the start. The bigger long-term bet was on integrating the web with TV, to create a seamless hybrid of the two. WebTV Plus took the integration one step further, allowing you to plug your cable signal into the box, and providing an extremely easy to use interface for searching TV listings, keeping track of your favorites, and even tying the shows you watched to related websites.

WebTV Plus was ahead of its time. Many of the innovations it pioneered (including the ability to click through to purchase or get more info on an item directly from a TV commercial) are things that today's technologists still strive to include in the next generation of set-top boxes.

And with the DishPlayer box (essentially a WebTV Plus built into a DishNetwork satellite box), they took it one step further and included one of the first-ever digital video recorders. DishPlayer and TiVo were in development at the same time, with offices just a few blocks from one another, and launched within a few months of one another. It still kills me that the DVR race played out the way it did.

At launch, DishPlayer had all the same functionality as TiVo, a much more intuitive user interface (most people forget the initial learning curve TiVo users faced), the ability to play games like Doom and You Don't Know Jack (hey, it was the 90s, these games were pretty cool back then), and the entire internet to boot, for essentially the same price. Sadly, Microsoft really didn't understand what they had on their hands, and put almost no money into marketing DishPlayer. Meanwhile, their pluckier startup competitor with a clunkier UI, far less features, and a cute animated mascot marketed the crap out of their product, and now TiVo is a verb and hardly anyone remembers DishPlayer.

Would TiVo be a verb today if WebTV's founders had said no to Microsoft's $425 million offer and run full steam ahead the way TiVo did? And would it have taken another 10 years for set top boxes to start infiltrating the living room like they're finally starting to do now? The world will never know. But I'll always have my suspicions.


How WebTV Fell, but Refused to Die

For the first year after the acquisition, Microsoft mostly left WebTV alone. They knew they had something amazing on their hands, but didn't really understand it, so they let us continue working our way. Besides the obvious flaw of not believing in DishPlayer enough to properly fund its marketing, Microsoft started to dig its teeth into daily operations.

Emily, the CS manager we all loved and adored, left the company and was replaced by a devious, soulless shell of a human being Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned. My own manager, Steve Kroll (who I would have gone to hell and back for) finally left the company in frustration, and was replaced by an old-industry manager who literally couldn't even type, much less grok the technology industry. And the two of them proceeded to replace all the passionate, knowledgable startup staff with business types who didn't know the product and didn't care about the users. I was lucky enough to find a new startup gig and left the company the day before our group moved into Microsoft's new Silicon Valley campus. By the time Soulless and Clueless had been fired (a few months after I left), they had already cost the company at least a dozen of its best CS employees and laid waste the the team's morale.

Some of the other organizations might not have ben hit as badly as CS. And indeed, there were a few of the old WebTV crew who spent the next decade of their career quite happily at Microsoft, both moving to the Xbox and Hotmail teams (or to the Seattle mothership) and doing their best to keep the WebTV service alive and kicking for as long as possible.

After the move to the Microsoft campus, the product remained on the shelves and in active development for several more years. They rebranded it MSNTV, upgraded the browser, migrated the email to run on Hotmail servers on the back end, and even came out with a box that supported broadband. Eventually, despite continued demand for the WebTV/MSNTV service, demand for new hardware decreased to the point where they stopped selling it. Despite the lack of new hardware, the service continued to live on for many years beyond.

The fact that today's shut-down is happening 17 years after the acquisition, and 16 years after the Dark Days should stand as a testament, not only to the herculean efforts of Andrew Levin and his team, but of the incredible staying power that was built into WebTV's business right from the start.

Today, we live in a world where most "products" on the web are subsidized by the advertising companies who use them to harvest ad targeting data from their users. No matter how beloved a product is, if it ceases to be sexy or cool, or provide enough ad-targeting intel, it gets the axe. (Google Reader users, you may now rant.) But WebTV was an old-school business. They made a product that served a need, and charged a fair price for the service. This gave them product a much sturdier foundation upon which to stand.

If I recall correctly, WebTV had a base of close to a million users at its peek. This number doubtlessly dropped steadily over the years. But with the majority of the service already up and running, the service could likely be run on a skeleton crew of maybe a dozen people plus server costs. I don't have access to any internal numbers, but by napkin math, at $20 per month per user, you would only need about 10K users to cover costs. Beyond that, you'd be looking at another $2.4 million in revenue for every additional 10K users. So even at only 10% of its peek user base, you'd still be looking at a business unit that generated around $22 million per year in profit.

It's hard to kill a product that refuses to stop generating income. I sincerely wish every entrepreneur today would take this lesson to heart. (Someday I'll write a post on the history of Half.com. It's a very different product from WebTV, but the lesson is identical.)


WebScissors and the Legacy of Jos

I made a lot of friend in my time at WebTV. Easily the friendliest and most prolifically talented of them was Jos Claerbout. He was one of those guys who just radiated friendliness. You couldn't meet him and not instantly adore him. And his brain simply wouldn't stop producing. He thought objecting oriented programming should be easier to learn, so he wrote the funniest, most useful object oriented programming tutorial I've ever seen: Don't Fear the OOP: Why coding Java is just like writing a trashy Western novel. He saw users having trouble making their own websites? He built his own tool, WebScissors, to make it easy for them to import images to their WebTV scrapbooks.

Sadly, he shared so much of his heart with the rest of the world that it gave out on him far too soon. Jos's death had a huge impact on everyone who knew him. His father, Jon, put together a beautiful site on The Life of Jos Claerbout that crystalizes many of our thoughts and memories of him.

Before he died, I had been talking to Jos about working with him to upgrade the user interface for WebScissors, and add the ability to view HTML source code. So I was deeply honored when Jon and Andrew Levin (who was maintaining the site on Jon's behalf) invited me to help maintain WebScissors for posterity, and add the features Jos and I wanted to bring to our users. To this day, WebScissors 2.0 is alive and well, and we have no intention of letting it go any time soon. It will outlive the WebTV service itself, as a testament to Jos's creativity and dedication to his users.

And it may even continue to be useful, as today's tablet users often face similar browser limitations to those that WebScissors necessary in the first place, all those years ago. Time will tell...


The Legacy of WebTV

WebTV was an amazing product that was far ahead of its time. It taught me the importance of usability, and how a simple interface and a few visual/textual metaphors could bridge the gap to make complex technology accessible to the masses. It taught me the importance of community, and how deeply users will love your product if you fight like hell to make it serve their passions. And it gave me the curiosity, inspiration and opportunity to start a career that still gets me excited to this day.

But the true legacy of WebTV is its people. WebTV alumni have gone on to play key roles in creating some of the most ubiquitous technology on the market today. I've lost count of the number of WebTV alumni who have worked behind the scenes at Apple to continue the mission to bring the internet to the rest of us. Andy Rubin, Andy MacFadden and their team are behind the Android smartphones that appeal so well to the masses. And quite a few of alumni have remained with Microsoft, contributing to the Xbox platform and other products within the company.

And let's not forget the users. Never, ever forget the users.


As WebTV fades to #191919,* I will always cherish the people it introduced me to, and the lessons it taught me.


* WebTV Trivia:
It can be really hard on the eyes to read contrasting text on a true-black background. Especially on a low-resolution TV screen.
So all of the "black" screens in the WebTV service actually used the shade #191919 instead of true black for the background color.