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.

How to Fix the Live-Tweet / Spoiler Problem

For those who want to experience a media event from a particular person's perspective, live-tweeting can be great. A fan of a TV show might enjoy reading along with the reactions of an actor from the show, a media personality they like, or even one of their friends. But unless steps are taken to manage one's message, live-tweeting can also be one of the worst violations of Wheaton's Law in social media, pissing off all of your followers who don't like spoilers. The good news is that this is a fairly easy problem to fix, simply by using a parallel feed for live-tweeting events.


Why is live-tweeting such a bad idea?

Quite simply, unless your Twitter feed is specifically set up for live-tweeting, the odds are quite high that the majority of people who follow you do not want to read your live tweets. For anyone who is interested in the event you're covering but hasn't had a chance to watch it yet (either because it hasn't aired yet in their time zone, country, or online distribution platform, or because they simply don't have the time to schedule their life around live events), your need to live-tweet contradicts their desire to experience it fresh and spoiler-free when they do watch it. And for those who aren't interested in the event at all, your live-tweets essentially hijack your followers' feeds with irrelevant noise, which again translates to a bad experience for them.

As an example, let's look at Syfy's live-tweets of Warehouse 13. As part of the marketing for the new season, Syfy had the characters from the show live-tweeting several episodes. Given that the network has dozens of shows and even more movies on their channel (and many of their followers are drawn to their Twitter feed for Craig Engler's great "how the business really works" tweets), we can safely assume that it is a relatively small subset of their total followers that are fans of any given show. Let's be generous and call it 25%.

Let's further assume that, with an international following, a relatively small percentage will have the opportunity (much less have the time) to watch the show when it airs live in the same time zone as the live-tweet. Some will watch a few hours later when it airs in their time zone, some will watch the next day when it airs online, and some will watch a week or more later when their personal schedule allows. Let's again be very generous and assume that 20% of the fans watch live. Thus, 5% of the total users would be both fans of a given show and watching it live.

That would mean that 75% of the Syfy Twitter feed's followers will be annoyed at the flood of tweets that are irrelevant to them, 20% will be seriously pissed off at having the show they love spoiled for them before they've had a chance to watch it, and only 5% will be happy to have been able to properly enjoy the live-tweet experience. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that providing a negative experience for 95% of your followers in order to provide a positive experience for only 5% is a bad move.


But what if I give advanced notice to mute/unfollow me before I start?

Typically, when the recently-spoiled masses chew out the live-tweeter for spoiling things for them, the live-tweeter's response is to point out that they did make a warning tweet before they started. Something like "we're going to be live-tweeting for the next hour, so if you don't want to be spoiled stay off Twitter or un-follow us for a while." Setting aside the inherent presumptuousness of saying, essentially "I'm going to do something I know is bad, so it's your responsibility to avoid it," this kind of warning tweet simply doesn't work.

Twitter is, after all, reverse-linear. Unless they spend the whole day constantly refreshing Twitter (yes, I know some do, but they're the minority, particularly outside desk job hours), people experience your Twitter feed in reverse order. So if you spend an hour live-tweeting a show they love, they won't see your warning tweet until after they've had to wade through an hour's worth of crap, and already had the joy sucked out of their viewing experience. And they can't simply skip your tweets, as they have to sift through them in order to see all the other tweets in their timeline that are interspersed with yours.

Live-tweeting on a non-dedicated Twitter feed is simply a bad thing to do. Please, please don't do it.


Ok, but some people LOVE live-tweeting. How do we make it work for them?

It is absolutely true that some people love live-tweeting. Some tweeters love doing it, and some followers love reading it. That's great! If everyone involved is enjoying it, more power to them. The trick is simply making your live-tweets opt-in rather than opt-out by doing them on a separate Twitter feed.

Let's return to the Syfy example. Instead of using the main @syfy feed to host live-tweet events, Syfy could create a separate @syfy_live feed. Whenever they want to host a live-tweet event, they could then use the main feed to let people know that they can follow the secondary feed to play along with the event. That way, anyone who wants to see the live-tweet content can easily follow the live feed and bask in the instant gratification, while anyone who doesn't want to be spoiled (or simply doesn't care to have their feed flooded) doesn't have to be inconvenienced.

This setup also has the benefit of allowing Syfy to better judge how many people are actively engaged with the live-tweet events, as they can watch the follower count for the live feed go up and down with each event, rather than having to guess what portion of the main feed's changes (positive or negative) are related to the live-tweeting. Using separate feeds for live events really is better for everyone involved.

Craig, on the off chance that you're reading this, please let me know when you decide to implement something like this. I love almost everything you do with the Syfy account, particularly the "how the industry works" educational tweets. I was very sad to have to unfollow to avoid the flood of spoilers, and I would really love to be able to follow again.


But can't people still be spoiled when the live-tweet feed gets re-tweeted?

Yes, of course. But if that happens, the sin that is committed is by the retweeter, not by you, and unless they retweeting you en masse, it's going to be a far, far smaller problem than live-tweeting on your main feed. We can't solve the problem universally without Twitter building filtering tools into their product (which, as an advertising company, they have little incentive to do). But we can at least minimize the problem as much as possible by putting some thought into how we use our primary Twitter feeds and when we move special content to secondary feeds.



Hmm. Wouldn't this work for other high-volume live events, too, like sporting events?

If we could convince sports fans to have separate feeds for their game-day tweets, that would be utterly fantastic! Seriously, I might cry from the pure joy of it. But there the number of sports fans who annoy their followers with this undecipherable (to the rest of us) gibrish is far larger than the number of people who live-tweet TV shows and other live media events, so I figure it's best to start with an easily solvable problem, and work our way up to the more daunting problems.

Besides, when was the last time you tried to get a sports fan to listen to logic regarding how they consume their sports? Especially while they're watching the game? Up. Hill. Battle. :-)