Browsing the web on TVs has never been good, ever. And Microsoft announcing last week that it's bringing Internet Explorer to the Xbox 360 is far from the first time anybody's tried to throw a web browser onto your TV — it's not even Microsoft's first shot. And we may see apps for the Apple TV announced in just a little bit at WWDC. One can only hope one of them is not a web browser.
The problems with getting the "whole internet" on your TV have been legion. For one, the fuzzy standard definition TVs in most homes in the late '90s and early 2000s made content designed for (slightly) higher definition computer monitors displayed on a TV look like you'd rubbed your eyes with sandpaper. But even once you solve the display issue, the more fundamental problem is the interactive model — using a web browser requires a pointing device and text input. You need a way to punch in URLs, site logins, things you want to search for, and a way to select stuff and click on links. From your couch. It's all about bridging the gap between a 10-foot interface (your TV) and a 2-foot interface (your computer). So the sordid history of internet browsing on your televsion is partly a timeline of failed interaction experiments.
Just Use A Keyboard Bro
One of the first mainstream attempts, Web TV, launched in 1996. It was bought by Microsoft in 1997 and eventually rechristened "MSN TV" in 2001. It was a thoroughly miserable way to do anything on the internet. You can't buy it anymore, and its official website barely functions. It had a wireless keyboard for text input, attempting to directly import the computer experience to a telvision. Ugh. But the WebTV team eventually helped build the Xbox 360, bringing it back full circle.
The Xbox 360 is also not the first console to try to let you browse the web, either. The Dreamcast, launched in 1999, was basically the first home console to attempt serious networking, web browsing and online multiplayer gaming. You could use a controller and onscreen keyboard to type if you hated yourself, but Sega also shipped a regular old keyboard and mouse (I still have both of them). Sega left the gaming hardware business after the Dreamcast.
While the PS3 is essentially post-HD, so it never had to deal with the fuzzy display play, it tried to deal with the control problem the same way: with an optional Bluetooth keyboard. Or if you were a masochist, you could use the PS3 controller. Either way, um, ew.
We've Got Motion (Controllers)
Opera, the browser famed for making the web sorta kinda usable on crappy mobile phones, took a shot with the Nintendo Wii. You can see how amazing it looks, using the Wiimote as a precise pointing device to punch in URLs, letter by letter. =(
Not long after the Wii, Hillcrest Labs' launched the Loop pointing device for TVs, which works kind of like a fancier Wiimote. A couple years later, it followed up with a TV web browser designed to go with the Loop (now the Scoop), called Kylo TV. A key difference between Kylo TV and the other entries here is that it never pretended to bring TV web browsing to a consumer device — it was always designed for computers hooked up to TVs, a behavior that's kind of niche, since most people don't want a thing they consciously think of as a computer hooked up to their TV. Oh look, a gross onscreen keyboard.
Have You Tried Using a Tiny Remote Control?
And here's the browser in Boxee, probably the premiere internet/TV box thing. Moving the cursor around with the Boxee Keyboard Remote does not look fun.
You don't need to understand Dutch to see how awkward Samsung's Smart TV's built-in web browser is, which they're demoing with a fairly standard remote.
What About A Big Controller?
Sony's Google TV-powered Internet TV came with this monstrous remote.
Okay, Okay, Just Use Your Smartphone
One of Microsoft's — and Google's — proposed answers to this history of sad interactive models is to use your smartphone like a combination trackpad/keyboard, as you can see in this quick demo of Internet Explorer for Xbox 360. It's better than having a full keyboard in your lap, the trackpad is more precise than waving your arm in the air, and you probably have your phone with you anyway. Probably the best solution yet, since it actually bridges the 10-foot interface gap by using a very close up interface for controlling it. (Microsoft didn't show off the Kinect interaction very much, but you can imagine it won't be nearly as agile.)
Still, it doesn't exactly look like the answer we've all been waiting for, either. And The Verge notes, "when we challenged Orullian to pull up The Verge, the fonts and some other obvious formatting styles weren't coming through." Oh well.
The underlying assumption in all of these products is that you want to browse the web on a giant screen from your couch, and that it's built into your everyday television experience. What 16 years of failed products has failed to underscore for these companies is that, perhaps, the entire model is a flawed one — that we don't want to "surf the web" on our TV. That web browsing as an activity is mostly a private thing. Just imagine showing the last four people who've been in your living your last dozen Google searches, or the last few things you looked up on Wikipedia. Yeah.
When we sit down in front our television, we just want to see the best stuff that we can — maybe that's through channel surfing, maybe it's something from the internet, maybe it's from Netflix. Maybe occasionally we will want to beam what's on our computers up to our TV via AirPlay. Very occasionally. But the model seems more and more like the way we use our smartphones: We dive into apps to get exactly what we want, and then go to the web browser if our apps fail. So maybe the real answer to browsing the web on our TV is simply to make better apps, to surface better content, rather than insisting that we're all demanding to see "the whole internet" on our TV. Because very clearly, we're not.