October 30, 1998 9:25 AM PST

WebTV drops plans for Java support

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If you have WebTV, don't count on using Java.

WebTV, the Internet access device company that's owned by Microsoft, has quietly dropped plans to incorporate broad support for Sun Microsystems' computing language into its product line. As a result, WebTV users will continue to miss out on some of the Web's more advanced features.

Customer and developer frustration with the inexpensive TV set-top device, manufactured by licensees such as Philips Electronics and Sony, is starting to crop up. So too are questions about WebTV's change of heart.

"You can't use Java, streaming video, [or] video conferencing, and you are eliminated from all Java chat rooms. [There is] no downloading of software, no immediate upgrades, no game playing, word processing, and the list goes on forever," said one disgruntled user.

"As a developer, it is unfortunate See related story: Microsoft's holy war on Java that they are not choosing to support Java, because there are things that...are useful in providing better content and functionality," said George Olsen, design director and Web architect for 2-Lane Media, thinking of things like stock and news tickers.

"It also means that [Web developers] are going to have to continue to develop different versions of sites for different browsers," he added.

WebTV maintains that the easy-to-use, approximately $200 set-tops aren't targeted at advanced Web surfers. "It's not that we don't think it's useful, it's just that we have limited resources in terms of development and computing power," according to Steve Perlman, cofounder and president of the WebTV.

WebTV shelved plans to develop a set-top box that supports Java not because of any nefarious meddling by its parent company, he added, but because Java requires more memory and is more expensive than WebTV resources allow. Meeting the memory requirements for Java would add 10 percent to the price of WebTV, Perlman asserted.

At one time, WebTV's Java support was a foregone conclusion--the Mountain View, California, company was an early and vocal supporter of Sun prior to its acquisition by Microsoft. But an about-face on Java and Sun came in the spring of 1997, just after the company was bought.

Although the sequence has raised eyebrows, WebTV executives claim that the timing was coincidental. Plans for Java support were dropped because it was too onerous and few users wanted it, they said.

Whatever the case, a U-turn occurred. WebTV officials were publicly proclaiming support for Sun at the JavaOne trade show on April 2, 1997. Four days later, the company was acquired by Microsoft for $425 million. Though WebTV continued to proclaim support for Java over the next few months, its ardor eventually waned.

"The timing is...unusual, and I would even say suspect," said Richard Doherty, an analyst with The Envisioneering Group, speculating that WebTV may have either announced its support for Java as a negotiating ploy with Microsoft, or because it was also in acquisition talks with Sun.

"You don't set up a deal with Microsoft like that overnight. It might have even been that they were dancing with Java. Sun generally finds companies earlier than Microsoft, but Microsoft writes a bigger check," Doherty said.

"Anytime Microsoft makes an acquisition, somebody's eyebrows are raised," said Ted Kunzog of Lasalle Street Securities. "Their technology [can be critical for] enabling Internet set-top boxes, which is a market that both Sun and Microsoft want to get into."

Although conceding that the timing of an announcement with Sun was close to the Microsoft acquisition and therefore may seem unusual, WebTV's Perlman insists that Microsoft was well aware of WebTV's work with Java before and after the merger.

"We were in talks for six weeks before they acquired us," Perlman said. "We all went forward with the best of intentions--unfortunately it didn't turn out the way we would have hoped."

Early adopter of PersonalJava
WebTV was still publicly supporting Java three months after the Microsoft acquisition. It became one of the first licensees of the PersonalJava specification, which allows networked consumer devices.

"We're excited to be working with JavaSoft on such an important advance in the state of the arts, and WebTV is very excited to be the first licensee of PersonalJava," said Phil Goldman, cofounder and senior vice-president of WebTV, in a statement on July 23, 1997.

Perlman says today that the statement was true--at the time. "We developed PersonalJava together with Sun, in the hopes that we could get a version of Java that was small enough to run on set-top boxes. We weren't able to get a version small enough."

Sun declined to comment on acquisition rumors regarding WebTV.

Meanwhile, Olsen and some analysts believe that WebTV's non-support for Java is hurting acceptance of the platform.

"As Java becomes more and more widespread, there will be fewer and fewer sites that don't have Java. Sooner or later [WebTV users] are going to run into sites where there's some Java that's crucial to being able to use the site," said Olsen, who is also project leader for the Web Standards Project. "While WebTV users may not be visiting Java-heavy sites in droves right now, I'd be curious to hear how [WebTV] plans to handle those pages."

Other developers agree Java would be a boon to the platform. "I certainly would love a 'cross-platform' viewer, because I use Linux and make Web pages and want to know what my Web pages look like on WebTV. [I want] my sites to look reasonably well no matter what browser the person seeing the site is using," said Reed Hedges, a Web developer, via email.

"Reaching all audiences...is one of the most important aspects of Web design," he asserted.

"Most of our users don't know what an URL is. What people don't realize about WebTV is that the main characteristics that people buy it for are reliability and ease of use, not innovation," countered Perlman. "Innovation is something we have to slip in without compromising reliability and ease of use."

Not supporting Java doesn't greatly compromise the customer experience, he continued. "Java is not a big player in TV. Future WebTV boxes will support Windows CE, and although Windows CE has the ability to support Java from Hewlett-Packard, we don't necessarily support all the things that Windows CE will support."

Broken promises?
There may be still another explanation, but one that is even more damaging to WebTV from a customer perspective. WebTV's lack of support for Java may be less a result of its price point or acquisition strategy and more related to slow execution, Doherty said.

"Very few WebTV promises of performance have been delivered," he said. "It can't support frames [on Web pages], by last September 15 you were supposed to be able to grab photos and video and email them, and a year after that date they just started sending out the electronic upgrade."

"Java was listed as one of those things they would support, and those things just did not happen," he said. "On the spec sheets and the boxes, it said it [the WebTV box] was Java-compatible. It wasn't then, and it isn't now."

"It's endemic to the situation," he said. "WebTV performance is great--but it was touted as superlative."

WebTV boxes may support Java at some point, in some way, Perlman said. The next version of WebTV, will be based on Microsoft's Windows CE, which supports J++, Microsoft's version of Java.

Alternately, there's PersonalJava, which would require doubling the WebTV Plus memory capacity to 16 megabytes, Perlman said.

"If at some point it becomes a value proposition for the consumer, than of course we support it."

News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.

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We've used WebTV for many years, but now it's next to worthless. Mail, a few pictures, and that's it. eBay is part of our business and now that doesn't work anymore either, so we've bought laptops and will drop WebTV for good. Microsoft had better wise up or MSN2 will be only a doorstop or a boat anchor.

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