Many sites on the Web today look absolutely horrible on WebTV browsers, not because of the browsers, but because most web developers don't know how to properly test their sites for WebTV. This article will take that excuse away from the conscientious web developer.
Many of the web developers I've worked with don't design for WebTV simply because they don't think they need to. "My site stats show I only get half a dozen hits from WebTV per month, so I don't need to worry about them" they'll say. But there's more going on with WebTV than the numbers would lead you to believe.
The aspects of the WebTV service that have been the most popular among WebTV users are those that pertain to communication and community building: email, chat, newsgroups, etc. As a result of this (and the fact that computer users often look down their noses at WebTV users) the WebTV users bound themselves together into an incredibly tight-knit community.
If one WebTV user goes to a popular web site and sees that it does not work on WebTV, they will often post their experience to the various newsgroups that are frequented by other users, leading to other users not even bothering to try to access the site. And when they find sites they really want to use and can't, they've been known to stir up community-wide campaigns against the site's CS department, begging for a fix.
On the flip side, WebTV users are so used to major sites not catering to their needs that when they find a site that does work well on WebTV, they will often spread the word through the WebTV community, and bring considerably more traffic to the site. So if you're not already catering to WebTV users, the fact that you get few hits from them means very little. If you cater to them, they will come.
Of course, not every site needs to account for WebTV users. If you're working on a corporate intranet, a site that specializes in streaming video, or an applet-intensive site, then catering to WebTV users would be a waste of your time, since WebTV users wouldn't be able to use those sites anyhow. But if you're building any other web application that is available to the general public, it is well worth the effort to make your site function and display properly on as many platforms as you can, WebTV among them.
Describing all of the aspects of web design that need to be taken into account to completely optimize your site for WebTV would be an article in itself. But just making your site look decent and function properly on WebTV is much easier. By following a few simple design concepts, most sites can be made to look at least pretty good on WebTV with very little effort. And if your site looks good on WebTV, it will probably look good on just about any browser.
If there is enough reader demand, I may write a second article covering this area in more depth, but for the sake of this article and testing existing sites, the resources available there should suffice. You can also check out Frank Gaine's Usability for the Web on Television article, right here on evolt.
Once you've decided to make your site display well on WebTV browsers, you'll want to be able to test your design and see how it works. Depending on how thoroughly you want to test your site, there are three main levels of testing that you can choose from (or combine with one another, for best results).
The easiest method for testing your sites on WebTV browsers is to download the WebTV Viewer from WebTV's Developers' site. The WebTV Viewer is an emulator that you can install on your PC (or Mac), to get a general idea of how your sites will display on WebTV. Since you can have this emulator running right beside your development environment, it is the easiest method for testing look-and-feel issues as you design. But it is also the least trustworthy of the options when it comes to final output.
Many of the readability issues (such as text size and color contrast) are caused specifically by the content being displayed on an NTSC television screen, so these sorts of problems can't be detected using the emulator on your PC monitor. For example, straight black text (#000000) on a straight-white background (#FFFFFF) will read just fine on the emulator, but will be difficult to read on a TV screen, since the high-contrast colors appear to bleed together at the edges.
As a convenient example, when you Go to http://www.evolt.org in the WebTV Viewer, instead of the usual Evolt site, you get some bizarre half-broken site for some place called oracular.com. Going to the same URL on a real WebTV box brings you to the Evolt site you'd normally expect to see, except that clicking on any of the article titles will give you a "publisher cannot find requested page" error - WebTV's equivalent of an Error 404. [But I'm sure the Evolt folks are working on this, right? :-) ]
If you want to test the full functionality of your site on WebTV, and not just the visual look-and-feel aspects, you're going to need to test on a real WebTV box. But which WebTV box are you going to test on, using what size TV screen, and what's it all going to cost? These are all good questions, so I'll answer them one by one.
Which of the available WebTV boxes should you use?
As of this writing (February 2001), there are three main models of WebTV boxes: Classic, Plus and DishPlayer.
The Classic is the oldest of the three, and offers only the ability to surf the web over a TV. The Plus is the second generation box, which provides a slightly more advanced browser, and introduces interactive TV functionality. The DishPlayer is essentially a Plus box built into a Dish Networks satellite receiver, with the added benefit of Digital Video Recording (DVR) capabilities - think TiVo.
The Classic and Plus both come in an older and newer model. Brand is essentially irrelevant, since they are all designed by WebTV Networks, Inc. and simply outsourced to Phillips/Sony/etc. for manufacturing. There is also a box coming out soon called UltimateTV, which is the equivalent of the DishPlayer, but with more DVR functionality, embedded in a DirecTV receiver. The UltimateTV browser will likely be equivalent to the DishPlayer - and there are very few differences between the Plus and DishPlayer browsers.
[May 2002 Update: After UltimateTV was released, they stopped producing DishPlayer boxes. Both DishPlayer and UltimateTV use similar service software, so the DishPlayer is still being supported. But you have to buy the box used, since they are no longer being manufactured. For the most part, the web surfing features of both products are the same, since the major product differences are in the DVR funcionality.]
If you're a home-based developer, and your television is relatively close to your work area, I would suggest getting either the Plus or DishPlayer box, as you will be able to justify the purchase by using the interactive TV features in your own day-to-day life (recording shows to watch at your convenience, etc).
Otherwise, I strongly suggest that you pick up a Classic box (preferably the older model, with the 33.6K modem). Since this is the slowest of the models, and has the least amount of memory, it is the most likely to run into problems when displaying your site, and is therefore the most stringent platform on which to test.
The most common errors, I'd say, is when pages are "too large to be loaded completely," due to the limited system memory, or "publisher cannot be reached," due to the 60 second browser timeout when accessing a page.
What size TV screen should you test on?
This article was originally written in response to a developer who was in the process of setting up the ultimate testing room in her house, with every computer and monitor configuration you can think of running at once. She was getting ready to add WebTV to the array, and was wondering how many different TV sizes she should test on.
Well, the good news is that WebTV displays pretty much the same on any TV you hook it up to, since all NTSC television screens have a set 560x420 pixel display. After taking away for borders and the WebTV browser's status bar, that leaves you with a 544x372 area within which your page will be displayed (vertical scrolling only). So even if you're going full boar, you should only need one television. And if you wire it right, you can even get a Classic, Plus and DishPlayer running on the same TV, through a switchbox (just remember to put silly putty over the IR receivers on the boxes you're not using, or they'll keep reacting to the wireless keyboard and/or remote control's signal).
The only real difference between TV sizes is how far away from the screen you can be and still read the text properly. If you're setting up your testing lab at home, it's best to just use the TV that's probably already in your living room, since that's the way most WebTV users have it set up. If your lab is in more of a corporate/workplace environment, a 13" screen set up next to your monitor should be fine.
How much does it all cost?
Since having a low price-point is one of WebTV's main features, setting one up to test on is relatively inexpensive. WebTV users are often trading up to newer WebTV models or graduating to PCs, so there are usually several WebTV boxes for sale on eBay (Classic ~ $50 Plus ~ $100 DishPlayer ~ $200). If you want to buy them retail, you'll pay about $100 for the Classic, $200 for the Plus and $400 for the DishPlayer. And since the less expensive boxes are going to be the best testing environments, it really doesn't cost much to buy the box.
The real cost comes in paying for the service. The WebTV Classic service costs $21.95/month for the new model and $19.95/month for the old model (Philips Magnavox MAT960 and Sony INT-W100). The WebTV Plus service costs $24.95/month (it's the same price for DishPlayer, although the DVR features cost an additional $5/month). Whichever box you're using, though, you get a $10/month discount if you're using your own ISP to connect, instead of WebTV's built-in ISPs.
So to pick up an old Classic model and keep it running for a full year, it would cost less than $300 - and that's not even taking the Use Your Own ISP discount into consideration.
But if even that is too steep a price for you, there are still some less traditional options available. Most electronics stores that carry WebTV will have one hooked up on display, and a good portion of those even have the box connected to the Internet (instead of just running the in-box retail demo). So you could always drop in and see how your page works on their box while shopping for that new MP3 player you've been saving up for.
There are also several cyber-cafes and miscellaneous establishments that have WebTV boxes hooked up for their customers to use while they're visiting. For example, if you stop in at Rockin' Java on Haight/Ashbury in San Francisco, they've got two boxes hooked up that you can test on while nursing a nice, hot mocha. It's up to you to decide if $20/month is more or less expensive than a $3 cup of coffee and a few bucks in meter change every time you want to test out a new feature on your site. :-)
Note: Sadly, WebTV has yet to offer a discounted or hourly-rate service plan for developers to use for testing. Although this is probably due to the fact that developers rarely contact WebTV to request such a service. Perhaps they might consider the option if there was enough demand from the developer community.
Hooking up a real WebTV box in your testing lab will give you an accurate view into how WebTV handles your site. But since most developers will only use the box for testing, and not day-to-day surfing, you still won't get a realistic representation of how the WebTV user will use your site, since surfing habits and expectations are so different between WebTV users and computer users.
The best way to get thorough and accurate test results on how your site behaves on WebTV is to ask the WebTV community to give it a once-over for you. Since WebTV users have been repeatedly brushed off by web developers in the past, they will usually jump at the chance to help someone who genuinely wants their site to work properly on WebTV. If your site offers content or features that they're even remotely interested in using, you can get some quality feedback from the community for free (and if your testers are impressed with your efforts, they're likely to spread the word throughout the community).
So how do you tap into the WebTV community to find your testers? These days, the WebTV-only newsgroups are the most frequented watering holes for those in the WebTV community who are interested in building web sites; and those are the folks who will make the best testers. A few places to get started would be:
[Update: The list of WebTV Newsgroups in the WebScissors help files is updated more frequently than this article, so that's probably a good resourcer as well.]
Every developer who is building web sites for mass consumption should download the WebTV Viewer and use it alongside IE and Netscape in their ongoing browser testing. Anyone who is providing more than just static content and wants to insure that it also works on WebTV should also test it on a real WebTV box. And if you want to make certain that it works on all WebTV platforms, in their native environments, tapping the WebTV community is your ultimate QA source.
The reassurance that your site is at least palatable when viewed on WebTV is well worth the small amount of effort that it takes. It really doesn't take that much more effort, and any site that looks good on a WebTV is bound to look good on just about any browser. Besides, making sites that port well to multiple browsers is simply a good habit to form.
Go forth. And use your powers only for good!