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Book Reviews

WebTV for Dummies

by Brad Hill

I Want My WebTV

by David Fox

Introducing WebTV

by Jill T. Freeze and Wayne S. Freeze

Boy, this Internet thing must be frustrating for marketing types. After more than five years in the white-hot glare of media attention – five years as the Next Big Thing – the goose still refuses to lay the much-anticipated golden egg.

It’s not as if the marketing people haven’t been trying. I mean, remember the Microsoft Network? Wired magazine’s online efforts? Netscape’s IPO? Those were big deals, backed by some of the slickest PR efforts our era has ever seen. For all the promotional money involved, though, the public seems to have entirely missed the point.

“Oh,” the marketeers must be thinking, “if only we could convince those web-surfers to forget about that Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee video and take up, you know, shopping or something! And God forbid that any more people start thinking it’s acceptable to spend couch-potato time without watching commercials or spending money.”

No, this decade has not been kind to those hoping to earn big cash on the info highway. And in 1998, as big names like Amazon.com and Slate continue the balance-sheet bleeding, you have to marvel at the gritty, dogged determination of the hype machine. Not, of course, that it’s always been this grim.

You see, the summer of 1996 was a happy time for Net-business, full of optimism and promise. The reason? A little black box called WebTV. It was a device about half the size of a VCR that, when attached to a TV set and a phone line, allowed viewers to access the Web without computers. And because the product was easy to use, it promised to appeal to a nearly ideal demographic: people who felt too intimidated by technology to get online the old-fashioned way. Yep, WebTV would attract consumers. And if all those ill-tempered, unpredictable, hostile-toward-our-brand-building-strategies geeks – the people who dominated the Net at the time – didn’t want any part of it, well, so much the better.

As it turned out, hardly anyone wanted any part of it. To date, the service has only attracted about 350,000 subscribers in the U.S. To give that number some perspective, consider this: America Online claims subscriber numbers in the 10 million range. And in the comparatively tiny Canadian market, Sympatico – this country’s largest Internet provider – serves more than 400,000 members. For a system that was supposed to be mass-market, WebTV looks like a failure. Or, at best, a niche player.

The people behind WebTV have very deep pockets, however – Microsoft recently bought the service – and they’re still thinking world domination. The Canadian launch happened on June 9 in Toronto. At that press conference, representatives from Microsoft and the WebTV head office demonstrated the system for a theatre full of technology reporters. I was there, too, and I have to say I was underwhelmed.

At first glance, WebTV is unbelievably slick. You navigate from one page to another using a simple, hand-held remote control, guided by gentle chiming sounds and sensibly designed icons. And, as long as you stay on web sites designed expressly for the WebTV browser, everything looks fabulous. The layouts are gorgeous, and the type is clean, crisp, and easy to read. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t mix nearly as well with the outside world as its masters might hope.

Just as WebTV president Steve Perlman was telling us that his unit displays conventional web pages “beautifully,” he showed us a site that I know intimately: CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. As rendered by WebTV, it was a good deal less than beautiful. Navigation buttons broke into pieces, small highlight photos nearly filled the screen, and news copy snaked, at about three words per line, down the side. And this was, keep in mind, a site that the WebTV people had specifically selected to show off their machine’s versatility. Not impressive.

As the demonstration went on, the WebTV brass made it pretty clear that they understand they’re not ready to play with the big kids; they constantly referred to the system not as an Internet access unit, but as an enhancement to TV. In Perlman’s words, WebTV is not about the online world, but about “making your television lives better.”

To that end, most of what we saw was dedicated to the new features of something called WebTV Plus. The “plus,” you see, is a TV tuner built into the box. When you turn it on, if only to watch Matlock, the unit detects what channel you’re watching, and loads an up-to-date broadcast schedule from a proprietary database. So instead of consulting the listings, you can just ask your WebTV what’s going to be on next. Or when, and on what channel, you’ll be able to find the next airing of Matlock.

In this capacity, WebTV is shockingly good. It takes basic TV tasks – programming a VCR, finding a Law and Order episode you haven’t seen, avoiding that show with the dancing baby – and makes them genuinely easy and pleasurable. The big question, though, is this: given that the WebTV Internet experience leaves a lot to be desired, who’s going to pay $299, plus $25 (U.S.) a month, for an automated TV Guide?

Despite naysaying from people like me, some folks are bound to take the WebTV plunge. And several instructional books are waiting for them at the bottom of the pool.

The first few chapters of WebTV for Dummies cover exactly the same material you’d find in the owner’s manual (the little red plug goes in the little red hole, and the little white plug goes in the little white hole). The remainder of the book is a simple guide to the Web: cool sites, useful services, educational pages, and so on. In short, there’s nothing here that a WebTV owner couldn’t find for a fraction of the price in a single issue of the average Internet magazine.

I Want My WebTV is a similar story: it runs through stuff that’s in the owner’s manual, and then spends 300 pages pointing out cool sites. This guide is, to be fair, better organized and more thorough than the Dummies one, but it’s still not worth the purchase price.

While it leaves a lot to be desired, Introducing WebTV is the best of the bunch. Like I Want My WebTV and the Dummies book, it begins by repeating the installation instructions. Instead of following with a list of sites, though, it talks about the culture of the Net itself: its strengths, its weaknesses, and its idiosyncrasies. We learn that it’s a bad idea to post in a discussion forum without lurking for a while first, we learn how to evaluate the reliability of information we find online, and we learn that spam is a very bad thing.

The online world has very little patience for people who can’t be bothered to read a manual or a frequently-asked-questions list before flooding the Net with “how do I…” postings. In short, those who make grand spectacles of their own ignorance are not nearly as welcome as those who take the time to read and get their bearings before leaping in. Snobbish as this may sound, some of the worst offenders over the past months have been WebTV users. And any book that can help those people learn some appropriate behaviour is a good idea, if you ask me.


Reviewer: Bret Dawson

Publisher: IDG Books


Price: $26.99

Page Count: 360 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-7645-0150-X

Issue Date: 1998-8

Categories: Science, Technology & Environment

Tags: , , , , , ,

Reviewer: Bret Dawson

Publisher: Waite Group Press


Price: $28.95

Page Count: 352 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-57169-105-7


Issue Date: August 1, 1998

Categories: Science, Technology & Environment

Reviewer: Bret Dawson

Publisher: Microsoft Press


Price: $22.99

Page Count: 280 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-57231-715-9


Issue Date: August 1, 1998

Categories: Science, Technology & Environment