Who here remembers 1996? The internet was a new and exciting place back then, full of promise for power users but still daunting for many people. Even using the most advanced hardware of the day it was still hard to connect unless you happened to be at a large company with an accommodating IT department.

The web was only five years old back then, and its major components were still not even included in most computer software. And, keep in mind that computers back then cost over $1,000 commonly and in today’s money that’s more like $2,500. The time was ripe for a small device that gave internet access to the masses.

Seriously, the best picture I could find

It’s hard to find images of the original WebTV hardware, because image uploading wasn’t common when it was invented. But basically it was a small black box about the size of your average cable box at the time. You could use an on-screen keyboard or wireless keyboard and your TV was the display device. It connected to the internet over your phone line. All told you’d pay about $500 for a working device and $20 a month for the service, which included unlimited browsing and e-mail.

I remember the experience

I had access to one of these devices in the 1990s. It was in a conference room at the place where I worked. My experience was that it was very, very slow. Turning it on was slow, getting signed in was slow, and overall it was slow slow slow. The web browsing experience was bad enough in the 1990s without search engines or modern HTML standards, but it was unquestionably worse on a standard-definition TV.

I’m not going to say that it was the absolute worst way to browse the internet at that time. That dubious honor goes to the nascent Windows CE devices of the time. These handheld devices would get on the internet, if you hard wired them to the wall with an adapter that cost as much as the device itself and then the experience was, to say the least, horrid.

The promise of WebTV

Sadly, WebTV didn’t live up to the promise. Instead of attracting a whole generation of new web users, its slow speed (even by the standards of the day) and hard-to-use interface drove people to “real” computers. In 1998, Windows was upgraded to be more internet-friendly and the days of webTV started to disappear in the rear-view mirror.

Surprisingly, the webTV service continued for quite some time after that. The service was bought by Microsoft and operated as MSN TV for a while and then, despite its absurdity, it simply continued to operate until 2013 believe it or not. I covered its final demise in a blog post back then, noting that the few people who used the service would probably need to make the long-overdue switch to a real computer. I wonder if they ever did.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.