Do you remember WebTV? Neither do I. When the set-top box was introduced in 1996, it was met with an overwhelming lack of demand, and with good reason. Your typical web page in ’96 consisted of a big chunk of text with some pictures sprinkled over it. Tables and spacer GIFs allowed us to clean up page layouts and make things a little more readable, but the Web was still there to be read, not watched, and if there’s one thing TV is really lousy for, it’s lots of reading. And so, while WebTV isn’t actually gone, it is largely forgotten.

With that in mind, a web browser on your Wii (or PS3, for the eight of you that have one) seems like little more than a novelty, something tossed in to show off the console’s Internet connectivity. That’s probably all it was meant to be, but even though a TV-based browser is still a TV-based browser, the Web itself has changed a lot in the last ten years. Text still dominates overall, but images both moving and still make up an increasing share of the Web’s content. Flash and non-crappy Javascript have enabled us to make “interactivity” on the Web mean more than just hyperlinks and the occasional CGI form. Web browsing has gone from being a reading activity to a reading/watching/doing activity, and that opens up new uses for TV-based browsers like the Wii’s Internet Channel.

YouTube alone makes the Wii’s browser worth having: From John Edwards’ presidential candidacy to The Shins’ new video to the continuing adventures of lonelygurl15 and friends, YouTube has had more interesting content on in the last week than the networks have had on in a month (especially with all the good shows on hiatus), and being able to watch it on my TV just makes me miss cable that much less.

The Wii Internet Channel is beginning to make an impact on gaming as well. There are already Wii-optimized gems popping up on WiiCade.com and WiiFii.net that take advantage of the console’s remote pointer and zoom functions to drive gameplay. Browser-based games that work on both PCs and consoles without porting can open up new opportunities for cross-pollination between those worlds. Hey, maybe if someone makes my dream virtual world, it will be accessible on the Wii as well as on PCs!