Online television just lost a pioneer — and hardly anyone noticed: On Monday, Microsoft finally pulled the plug on its long-sidelined MSN TV service. The shutdown puts and end to a service that launched in 1996 under the name WebTV, at the time promising to use the TV as a way to connect the masses to the internet.
On the MSN TV website, Microsoft explained the closure this way:
“WebTV (later called MSN TV) started in 1996 with the goal to bring new people “online” and to give those already online an easy, hassle-free means of accessing the internet from the comfort of their homes. Later, MSN TV 2 was released with vastly greater power and features. Since then, the web has continued to evolve at a breathtaking pace, and there are many new ways to access the internet. Accordingly, we have made the difficult decision to end the MSN TV service …”
WebTV was founded in 1995 by Steve Perlman, who later went on to found the cloud gaming service Onlive. The company launched its service in 1996, offering consumers a dedicated set-top box that connected their TV screen via dial-up to the internet. In 1997, the startup was bought by Microsoft for $425 million, and the service was eventually rebranded as MSN TV in 2001.
MSN TV received a refresh and slightly updated hardware with the roll-out of MSN TV 2 in 2004, offering subscribers access to email, messaging, a simple web browser and some online video content through their TV.
However, the hardware was underpowered, and Microsoft’s attention quickly shifted to other platforms, including game consoles. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is already primarily used as a media consumption device, and the company wants to double down on the delivery of TV and video services with the Xbox One, which is going to start shipping in November.