WebTV, a TV set-top box and related service that provides Internet access through television, has historically been targeted at non-PC users interested in simple Web surfing. Microsoft bought the company in 1997 and has focused many of its TV efforts around the company.
Last week, new WebTV Plus and Classic set-top boxes were announced, along with upgrades to the WebTV service. The new versions of the TV set-top boxes will be out this summer, WebTV said.
However, although the devices now support many multimedia technologies, WebTV confirmed that the new boxes are still not compatible with the most current version of Real Networks RealAudio streaming media player, and they also don't support Web applications written in Sun Microsystems' Java, despite the prominence of these multimedia technologies in the overall Internet landscape. In recent studies, Real Audio was pegged as the No. 1 media player. Java-developed functions include popular Java-enabled stock tickers and other "applets."
Late last year, in response to complaints from users, former president and co-founder Steve Perlman promised subscribers support for RealAudio in the 1999 generation of the WebTV hardware. He maintained that the memory requirements for Java were still too taxing to implement in its current format. Perlman has since left the company.
WebTV has been criticized both by its subscribers and outside observers for failing to support the features. The controversy has been heightened by the fact that Microsoft has had ugly fights with Real Networks and Sun regarding the technologies, the latter of which is still in the courts.
"We need these things now and they have taken too long," wrote one WebTV user in an email to CNET News.com. "They keep saying 1999, but I need it now. I and hundreds of other people asked for it last year, and we are still asking for it."
For its part, WebTV has asserted that the limited memory capacity of its set-top box presented technical challenges in implementing any additional features. Adding more memory would raise the cost of the box, WebTV argued.
Last week, the newest versions of these set-top boxes were announced, coinciding with news of Perlman's departure from the company. The upshot: Even the new, higher-end WebTV Plus set-top box, which offers greatly expanded memory capacity, does not yet support any of the newer versions of Real Audio.
A WebTV spokesman dismissed assertions that development has been delayed. "WebTV's development efforts for Windows Media Player, RealAudio, and Java continue as planned," the spokesman said, declining to comment further.
The WebTV service is made of three core components: hardware, Internet service, and client software, a spokesman said. While the hardware and service were updated last week, software development is a much longer and involved process, he said.
"There is a limitation based on the hardware units. It's definitely a challenge," said Sharon Frinks, group product marketing manager at WebTV, last week. The newest WebTV Plus box can be upgraded through a software download, she said. Unlike a full-fledged computer, WebTV hardware cannot be upgraded by the user. The box can only be updated through periodic service updates from WebTV. "One of the reasons for the memory configuration is to allow us to provide upgrades to current subscribers."
Change in strategy?
Technical issues clearly rank high among the reasons the technologies have not yet been adopted, but many observers believe that political issues have been a factor as well. Microsoft's role in determining the direction of WebTV has been on the rise, sources say, and has resulted in widespread shifts in strategy, possibly including Perlman's recent departure from the company.
"There's a greater Microsoft element to the company strategy now," said Sean Kaldor, an analyst with International Data Corporation. "It was out of Perlman's control."
In fact, sources within WebTV confirm that Microsoft's relationships with both Sun and Real Networks is one of the causes of the delays. "Ever since WebTV was purchased by Microsoft, Real Audio has been hesitant to do anything with us," a WebTV source said. "Negotiations are difficult, because there's not a lot of trust." Real Networks executives could not immediately be reached for comment.
Some speculate that WebTV's original mandate of providing simple Internet access has become overshadowed by its role in Microsoft's larger strategy for dominance in the cable and digital television space. "The old WebTV focus of easy Internet access is gone. The funeral was two weeks ago," said one industry source familiar with WebTV's plans, referring to the recently announced WebTV set-top boxes.
"With WebTV, Microsoft will be able to get into the rest of homes in the world," he said. "I don't expect to see Real support anytime soon."