MSN TV, we hardly knew ye

Microsoft is killing off its dial-up living room Internet service. Bet you forgot it was still around -- Cringely sure did

MSN TV died today after a lingering illness, shortly after celebrating its 17th birthday. It is survived in Microsoft's consumer products division by the Xbox and the Microsoft Mouse. In lieu of flowers, Microsoft requests that somebody please buy a damned Windows Phone already.

As AllThingsD's Kara Swisher has reported, Microsoft is shuttering its MSN TV service in September, ending a saga that dates back to the early days of dot-com madness.

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The service began in 1996 as Web TV, a set-top box startup that was determined to bring this newfangled InterWebs thing into America's living rooms. The pitch was convincing enough to persuade Microsoft to drop $425 million for the company in 1997, despite the fact that hardly anyone had ever seen one of these things in the wild.

Six years later it morphed into MSN TV, a low-cost dialup service for couch potatoes with roughly 1 million subscribers at its peak. (Web TV was also briefly classified as munitions and banned from U.S. export thanks to its sophisticated 128-bit encryption technology -- the one and only time Microsoft was considered a danger to anyone but itself.)

I had a Web TV box in my living room for a few weeks. It worked about as well as you could expect. Viewing Web pages ona 27-inch Zenith TV was fun for about 15 minutes, mostly because it was such a new thing. The charm wore off quickly when I discovered that to move around a Web page I had to hop from hyperlink to hyperlink using the Tab button on thewireless keyboard.

When I heard that Microsoft had acquired Web TV, I remember thinking: Well, that's the last we'll see of that. Essentially it was. But Microsoft's $425 million mistake is hardly the only blunder made by high-tech companies with more money than sense. It's not even in the top five.

Yahoo made Mark Cuban a billionaire (and the bane of the NBA) when it acquired Broadcast.com for more than $5 billion in 1999. When's the last time you heard anyone talk about Broadcast.com? In 2008, AOL dropped $850 million on Facebook-wannabe Bebo only to dump it in 2010 for less than $10 million. (Bebo's original founder just bought the company back from those investors for $1 million.) News Corp. famously lost more than $500 million on MySpace. Cisco flushed nearly $600 million down the toilet on the Flip cam only to kill it within two years. The jury's still out on whether Facebook's acquisition of Instagram and Yahoo's swallowing of Tumblr will join this list a few years from now.

Somebody needs to either a) take away these people's check-signing privileges or b) convince them I'm a juicy acquisition target, ripe for the plucking.

Of course, hindsight is a great form of corrective lens. Back in the dot-comedy era, there was an intense push to get the Internet into everyone's living room, despite the fact the vast majority of Web surfers were still rolling at a leisurely 28Kbps. The fastest home connections were lucky to hit 1.5mbps going downhill with a stiff breeze behind them. And the combination of early HTML design and low-res television CRTswas not pretty-- even the few well-designed websites looked like they had been built out of Legos.

Clearly the notion of surfing the Web via the boob tube was an idea ahead of its time. Oddly, it still is. Even today, with high-definition flat screens and sophisticated Web video services and multi-megabit connection speeds, nobody's really surfing the Web from their couches. People are still using their TVs the way they always have: to watch shows. The big difference is that now they're also doing it via Netflix and Amazon Video and YouTube.

The real Web TV revolution did eventually happen -- but it took place on the other end of the connection, at the server level, not the couch.

RIP, MSN TV. You now join a robust list of Microsoft products moldering in the dustbins of tech history. Can anyone say they're surprised?

How many other dead Microsoft products can you name? Post your favorites below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "MSN TV, we hardly knew ye," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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