Otherwise known as the "Mouse Potato's Delight", WebTV delivers Internet access using your humble TV monitor. It was brought to the market by former Apple executives, and promised to change our daily experience of sending e-mail and surfing the Net by moving it from the office to the sitting- room. From the rather formal, upright position required by a PC to the much more comfy, armchair-based slouch, WebTV insisted on moving us further up the ladder or civilisation to more sophisticated and relaxed interaction with cyberspace.
However, WebTV proved to be an all-round disappointment, as I found myself fumbling around with the rather small keyboard on my lap, then trying to type while kneeling in front of the coffee table, eventually settling down to carpet-based convolutions with the keyboard flat on the floor. WebTV's design turned out to be even more back-breaking than my daily 10 hours in front of the PC, and I won't be buying shares in it any time soon.
My keyboard problems were made worse by the iffy assumption that the Web is easily translatable to the TV monitor. When I eventually managed to get on the Web, my first reaction was of sheer disbelief and horror. Most Web pages are designed for scrolling, with strong, flat colours and often tiny fonts. This makes the TV-based surfing experience very difficult, as the TV monitor simply wasn't designed to run static images. Strong Web colours give you a headache and most of the text is simply unreadable when you are sitting 10ft away from the screen.
Surprise, surprise. I wasn't the only one who got a headache. Sales of WebTV are estimated at an abysmal 50,000 since its US launch in December. The results signalled a wake-up call to the large number of investors who rushed into the TV party with great enthusiasm but little research into what consumers really want.
Don't get me wrong; I fully support cheap Internet access via a set-top box. Many people would love to send e-mail from home, chat online to fellow gardeners on newsgroups, buy wacky techno-toys from innovations.co.uk or go for a blind date with the girl they met online. But a lot of them still can't afford a computer - or they suffer from Windows 95 phobia.
TV-based Internet access at a low price seems to be the answer. The smart investment money is going that way, from Philips, Sony and Sega to our home-grown Acorn NetStation box. But, as Marshall McLuhan taught us, the medium is the message. Changing the delivery platform from PC to TV will take more than just broadcasting the Web into your sitting-room.
A company taking a slightly different approach is Sega. Recently launched in the US, the Sega Saturn Link is taking the direction of multi-player games console. So far, the games design is still lagging behind networking technology, and only a few good networked games are available. But there is a large customer base that is used to the concept of a console in the sitting-room and will probably take well to the concept of linking with gamers round the world.
As to new content, an interesting approach has been taken by Viewcall. Looking up viewcall.com, I have discovered a beautiful, sensual e-mail metaphor, designed to resemble old-fashioned love letters. The low-tech romantic colours, the envelope with its 18th-century-style red seal and the slightly aged feel of the design made me feel I was writing the message by hand. The metaphor works well, as TV is a medium for non-computer-oriented users who are not used to PC-style interfaces.
Viewcall is a good example of "Entranets", Internet Entertainment Networks, with new content and programming designed specifically for Martini-sipping TV viewers instead of coffee-guzzling, PC-based geeks.
When I opened Cyberia, and launched the Cyberia Channel online, we all felt privileged to at the birth of the Web, the first new medium since TV. The Web was a baby, and we were nurturing it and bringing it up to deliver information, entertainment and empowerment to all PC users.
I felt that watching this new medium was a "once in a lifetime" experience. It was going to define my generation and our culture. Indeed, that was true, but little did I know that within the next three years there would be another new medium - different, unpredictable and even more whimsical than the Web. NetTV, as we call it, will be a new medium, with a new message and a new philosophy of design. It will reflect its own tribe of users in the same way that Web culture reflected left-wing, wired hippies from San Francisco.
It is too early to predict if NetTV will be a suburban tale of fathers and sons checking out football results and chatting to Spurs supporters online, or if it will be a house-wives' support network tool. But, needless to say, NetTV, being a combination of powerful information delivery and affordable price, will change the mediascape of post-Web communications within the next two years.
I, for one, will be in on it, and I'm already dreaming up new NetTV products for the mouse-potato viewing experience. Ideas, as always, to be forwarded to email@example.com