Friday, July 05, 2013

BPN 1642: The Switch to Internet in The Netherlands (3)

Commercial online services and offline products

The year 1980 was a very prosperous year for the new media in The Netherlands as Kluwer commercialised its legal database and the Dutch PTT launched its videotex service under the name Viditel. Both services were the first commercial online services in The Netherlands. They grew slowly but also experienced a slowdown, when CD-ROM for textual and numerical databases was introduced. 

Database services
On April 1, 1980 Kluwer launched its legal database. Predictions were made about the number of its users. Kluwer knew the legal market for its print products and could make a cautious calculation. With 4000 lawyers distributed over 1200 offices, let alone the government officials, the prospects were good; certainly with the future lawyers who would use the assistance of a computer. Making it a profitable service was a long haul, but possible[i].

The launch of the Kluwer Legal Database, triggered the production of a number of databases. When in 1988 the first inventory of online databases, either originally produced or foreign online databases sold in The Netherlands, was produced, the amount came up to 60[ii]. Attempts were made to establish information services, nationally and internationally. In 1982 Building & Townplanning, started working in the construction sector; however the service went bankrupt in 1995. In the same year the publisher ICU started up the international information service Samsom Data Service with maritime databases MARNA and SHIPDES and other databases by Dutch and foreign information providers. The service was killed in 1984 due to the economic climate. In 1990 another attempt was made to start up a national information service  by merging the national governmental computer centre to be privatised RCC with the private database service IVEV, bringing governmental databases together with business databases such as marketing, environmental and news ones into the Informatiebank. But by 1994 the plug was pulled out due to the economic recession and the absence of a feeling about internet.

E-mail services

The ASCII information services usually had no e-mail service alongside. E-mail services were exploited as separate services. Computer companies like IBM and GEC had e-mail services, also for third parties such as Easylink and Low Cost Linking. The Dutch PTT also launched an e-mail service, based on Dialcom software. This service had e-mail software aboard, but also database software to store newsletters. The Dutch PTT experimented in 1984 with the service named Memocom within its own organisation and with journalists reporting from the European Soccer Championship. By 1987 commercial initiatives were developed such as a newsletters for Dutch people abroad, which was distributed by fax,  and a daily computer newsletter by VNU, following the example of its sister publication IDB Online in London .

Videotex figures

Viditel was launched on August 7, 1980. Before its launch the project manager Ruiten had already forecasted a 100.000 subscribers by 1985. Asked on what research this figure was based, he pointed to the figures for the German equivalent Bildschirmtext. This service was predicted to have 1 million users by 1985; given that the population of Germany was five times the population of The Netherlands, the amount of subscribers would be 200.000, yet he chose the safe side of 100.00. But with no market experience in the online field the figures turned out to be completely wrong. After the first experimental year only 3.000 subscribers had joined the service and 130 information providers were presenting their products and services on the service. The television manufacturers got blamed, the PTT blamed the information providers and the PTT was broadcasted too optimistic figures, while the press saw the service as one big advertisement board without distinctive content.

It was quite clear that a large scale base of subscribers had to be created by other technological infrastructures and trigger services such as the telephone directory. As The Netherlands was one of the densest cabled countries in Europe, a solution was sought in two-way cable.  A long-term experiment was created in the south of The Netherlands, the South-Limburg project, with the support of governments and VNU, but it failed miserably. A third attempt was made in 1988, which resulted in the service Videotex Nederland. Usually telecom technology as well as a hybrid technology (telephone line for commands and cable for information) were used, while users were not forced to take out subscription. The new marketing had some success; at its height in 1994 the amount of occasional users reached 350.000. But from that year onwards the user figures diminished.


But also the online technologies got competition from CD-ROM from 1985 onwards. The silver disc turned out to be packaged bandwidth, an information carrier for textual and numerical databases with a low updating rate. Databases which had been online could now be exploited on a disc, which was cheaper than keeping them online. The Royal Tropical Institute distributed the agricultural database TROPAG online. But once CD-ROM was available it had an easier distribution worldwide on disc. And also Kluwer started to experiment with CD-ROM. The legal publisher saw possibilities to bring down the costs for the service by combining online for the timely updated information and the disc for the archived information. An April 1989 inventory of CD-ROMs produced in The Netherlands listed 27 productions[iii]. By 1997 CD-ROM had proven to be a packaged bandwidth solution and disappeared as a textual information carrier.


By 1989 the new media had developed to a developing industry sector. Some 185 companies were full time active in new media and companies were specialising, amongst others in video and audio. Outlets for CD-ROMs were found through petrol stations and bookshops.  Around these firms other supply companies sprang up such as marketing and conference companies. Also education picked up new media; in 1988 the first course interactive media designer was started at an applied university. And insight into the industry sector and its revenue capacity came from the first marketing research exercises; by 1994 the turnover of the new media industry sector, exclusively of internet, was 360 million guilders ( 175 million euro).

[i][i] Boumans, Jak (1982): Geen eind aan boeken – wel aan het zoeken. Boekblad 7/5/1982
[ii] Boumans, J.M. and C.N.A. Molenaar (1988): Marketing Informatie Systemen en Elektronische Informatie Bestanden. Self-publishing.
[iii] NVI/Electronic Media Reporting (1989), Lijst van optische media projekten. NVI.

Instalment 4: The sudden silent internet switch

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