Wednesday, September 17, 2008

BPN 1223 Pre-internet (9): Videotex outstripped by the time and technology

Videotex was a European technology. It was heavily stimulated by national politics and by the European Commission; grants were provided to promote research and development of the technology and market. Despite the support, videotext had a varying success.
For Great Britain the whole videotext adventure lasted 20 years from the start in 1971 till the sale of assets in 1991. Despite the fact that Prestel made use of common household devices such as the telephone and the television, it was still an expensive proposition. As a result, Prestel gained a limited market penetration among private consumers achieving a total of just 90,000 subscribers. But Prestel also received competition from other BT value added services like the combined e-mail and database system Telecom Gold.
In The Netherlands the whole technology also existed just twenty years, from 1976 (its first demonstration) till 1996 (the end of Videotex Netherlands. By that time the technology was over and done with. In the end roughly 350.000 users had made use of the public systems Viditel and its successor Videotex Nederland.
Other European countries, such as Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Germany bought the Prestel system. Italy registered 180,000 subscribers.
Remarkable is that the success of the French Télétel/Minitel was never repeated in any other country, let alone by any other videotext system. Yet Prestel had more success with selling the system than Télétel/Minitel. The success in France is often attributed to the free handing-out of the Minitel terminals. However I think that the Kiosque model was the key to success. The Kiosque was not regulated by the French PTT and the information providers felt more involved.
But also outside Europe videotext was no success. Singapore used a variation on the Prestel system by using a telephone line for prompting the system, while cable was used for downloading, providing a higher speed, allowing the transmission of pictures. Yet the system did not get out of the starting blocks and the same goes for the American trials of Green Thumb and Knight-Ridder. But system Telidon in Canada and Captain in Japan never got of the drawing board at all.

Part of the problem of penetration was also the colliding technologies. When videotex came onto the market, the PC was introduced in companies and bought as a toy by amateurs. They found out that the videotex technology and mini-computers and PCs were incompatible. All kind of conversion programs had to be written to transfer information from videotext devices to PCs for processing and storage of data.
Another interesting fact is to see that operational videotex remained limited to Europe. On the other hand in the United States the residential services like The Source, CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL also struggled to get enough market penetration. One should not forget that the seventies were a time of technology change with the introduction of computing and the first sales of PCs. In the eighties consumers were discovering how to make sense out of all these new technologies and how to cope with these new devices.

Could videotex have won the technology race against ASCII databases, e-mail and bulletin board systems? I personally do not think so, as the videotext technology was too much of a suit of armour, limiting the information provider and user. Besides the retrievability of information was too limited due to tree structures and page oriented navigation.

British Telecom, the telephone company spun out of the British Post Office, was early to abolish Prestel in 1991. Other countries were later. The Netherlands dumped Videotex Nederland on January 1 1997. In France Télétel/Minitel is dying out as the number of information provider declines with 30 percent a year. In 2005 there were still 6 million of Minitels (at its height it were more than 20 million), still yielding 351 million calls for 18.51 million hours of connection, generating € 206 million of revenues, of which € 145 million were redistributed to 2000 service providers. But the success of Télétel/Minitel has had also a drawback with the introduction of internet in France. In the nineties France turned out to be the first country on gaz and the last on electricity. France was one of the laggard countries in adopting internet.

Blog Posting Number: 1223

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