Thursday, August 04, 2005

25 Years Online in the Netherlands: A Compact History in 25 Instalments

Instalment 4: The online Volkswagen

Think back to a time that there were only really big computers, named main frames and table computers, named mini-computers. PCs like Dynabook were still on the drawing table; in fact it would take till December 1974 when the microcomputer age took off thanks to a cover article of Popular Electronics magazine on the Altair 8800, a lights-and-switches computer that cost $439 in kit form.

Another development in consumer information services was the television set as delivery station. In 1971 the BBC started the development of the first teletext system, which received the service name Ceefax. In the same year Sam Fedida, researcher at the the British Post Office's Research Laboratory, demonstrated "View data," the world's first videotext system (the name view data was changed into videotex due to brand name problems). Videotex was based on the same presentation protocol of teletext, however it has a communication link by telephone. With a television and a telephone in every household, the only link lacking was a modem and decoder. So videotex was perceived as the technology for consumer information services and the lower end of the business market. Videotex was the online Volkswagen.

And the momentum for online started to build up. The first purely consumer on-line service in the United States was The Source. It was founded in 1978 by William von Meister, a local telecommunications entrepreneur who envisioned a ‘home information utility’ that would do for computers what AT&T did for telephones. This service was based on the ASCII protocol (a character set of 128 capitals and under cast letters and figures, with 80 characters on a line and the line scrolling from top to bottom).

But Europe turned to the videotext presentation protocol ((seven colours, 40 characters per line and 24 lines per page). So by 1977 various PPTs were looking into videotext and by 1978 the scene bursted open in Great Britain, Germany and The Netherlands. The British Post Office started a test service, named Prestel, which was launched commercially in September 1979. Germany started experiments with Bildschirmtext (Btx) in 1978.

The Dutch PTT also selected the British videotext technology above other systems in development (France, Finland, Hungary) and in September 1978 showed the system with some Dutch contributions at the national consumer electronic fair Firato. The show made the publishers nervous as they saw that the system could be a competitor to them, while other companies like banks and retail chains considered the medium as a new carrier for advertisements and eventually for transactions. A flurry of activities around videotext was started. Tijl Data started to work on a link to the stock exchange. De ANWB took a hard look. The retailer Albert Heijn was interested. The AMRO bank showed interest.

VNU took videotext very serious. Intermediair Conferences organised in December 1978 a conference Viewdata in Nederland, followed Viewdata PTT in May 1979. Besides running the conferences, Intermediair started a consultancy, managed by Jay Curry and run by Arjaan Everts. It was the fastest way to absorb videotext service experience. The consultancy TVS (Adapted Videotex Systems) offered advise to VNU companies and to third parties.

Videotex central computer (left) and the VNU executive business terminal

Before the launch in 1980 the PTT and VNU divided the market. PTT would cover the residential market and VNU would focus on the business market. Both companies went home and did their homework, wrote plans and started to order equipment. The PTT ordered its GCE computer and many modems. VNU ordered its own computer and business terminal with TV, teletext and videotex and an automatic telephone dialer(!). But the nearer the launching time got, the more nervous the parties got. Eventually the PTT told VNU that the pact was off. So VNU was left with a videotext central computer and 1.000 units of the executive business terminals.

BTW My VNU executive terminal is still working as far as TV and the Dutch Teletekst service. As for videotex it is still makes abortive attempts to automatically dial the defunct Waterloo computer in London .

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