1997: Julie Jacobson’s Mom Reviews Philips WebTV

Julie’s mom Susan Jacobson goes online in 1997 for the first time with Philips Magnavox WebTV. The review is hilarious.

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Philips Magnavox claimed in the 1990s that its WebTV was so easy even adults could use it. We decided to see for ourselves back in 1997, forcing the technological innovation on a then-50-something Susan Jacobson—the only freelance writer post-1995 ever to mail us an article on paper.

We recently named WebTV as one of the 20 Home Technologies that were Ahead of their Time.


So easy…So they Say: A mother finally jumps online

by Susan Jacobson for Popular Home Automation, 1997

“How would you like to try getting online?” my daughter queried.

“You mean those new skates?”

“No, I mean the Internet. There’s a new product that allows people like you to access the Internet even if they can’t use computers. It connects to your phone and TV or VCR. Try it; what do you have to lose?”

My pride, it turns out.

The Philips Magnavox Internet TV terminal looks harmless enough. A black box about the size and weight of a medium cake pan, the unit comes with a handheld remote and optional wireless keyboard. There are no scary knobs or buttons. But there are parts. Oh my, are there parts: power cords, phone cable, video cable, audio cables, telephone splitter….

And there is an owner’s manual that, for the technically troubled, may as well be an MIT textbook:

Connect the RFU adapter (not supplied) to the VIDEO and AUDIO OUT jacks on the Internet Unit… .Use a RF coaxial cable to connect the ANTENNA OUT jacks to the Internet Unit.

If I knew an RFU adapter from a RF coaxial cable, I wouldn’t need a computer-alternative lifestyle.

Urged on, however, by the friendly folks at the other end of the 800 number provided, I persevered and did, finally, get this unit hooked up to my VCR. Another call to a second 800 number signed me up with the WebTV Network ($19.95 per month), and I was ready to go.

But where? And how?

Yes, WebTV features inviting icons urging Explore, Email, Around Town, Search, Multiple Accounts and Content Filtering. And yes, these are fairly simple to access. But neither the owner’s manual nor the on-screen instructions offers direction for the Internet illiterati.

Example: I wanted to see if I could get into an online Scrabble game. After digesting my owner’s manual (which ought to be served with a side of Mylanta) I guessed “search” and then “p-l-a-y-s-c-r-a-b-b-l-e” would be the best way to go.

It wasn’t.

The best way to go was via the GO TO button on the keyboard. Who knew? And how did I find this out?

That trusty 800 number and more than a little patience (22 minutes holding for the “next available representative”) got me this information, as well as a sympathetic ear: “Yes,” the rep admitted, “the user’s manual could be better.”

The 1-800 helpmates are pleasant and exceedingly knowledgeable, but an awful lot of users must need help because it takes an average of 15 minutes on hold to talk to someone. It seems to me the questions I needed answers to were pretty basic, like “How do the keyboard and remote functions differ?” and “How do I go straight to a Web site?”

The manual should address such questions—and others like, “What is a Web site anyway?” which I was too embarrassed to ask my technologically hip daughter.

On the plus side, Web TV’s email technology does not require a second, dedicated phone line; the line is freed automatically when 10 minutes or so pass without a command. It also includes an indicator for both new email and call waiting messages.

Finally, of course, it does get you on the Internet without requiring a computer. And I must admit that for a few days there I was surfing all over that Web. But this product is not for people like me who assumed WebTV was a teeny tiny television set for spiders.

WebTV presupposes some familiarity with the Internet. And if you have some familiarity with the Internet, you already use a computer. So, if you can master WebTV, you really don’t need it.

About the Author

Julie Jacobson
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Julie Jacobson:

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson

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