058 – Videotext – 1979

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History is written by the victors. Winston Churchill

Sam Fedida was a development engineer in the UK’s Post Office Research Station which ran the telephone system; his focus for networking was therefore on phones.

Fedida saw a way of connecting two items that most already possessed – the television and the telephone – and using them to distribute information. He launched Prestel, a contraction of press telephone, in 1979.

When privatisation split the Post Office into the postal service and the telephones business, British Telecom inherited Prestel. It used the V23 system to send data outward at 1200 bps and receive messages back at 75 bps.

Prestel was very similar to teletext; it had 24 lines of 40 characters, seven colours and rather blocky graphics. The top line bore the page number, the information provider’s name and any charge for the page; the bottom line was reserved for system messages.

Prestel’s edge over teletext was its ‘limitless’ capacity and speed. The system allowed the information provider to set a price for accessing certain pages; initially this was between £0.01 and £9.99. Better still, BT could apply its accounting strengths to bill and collect the sums. Payment was assured as few would risk having a telephone cut off for non payment. Prestel adaptors were initially acoustic couplers allowing a home phone to communicate with Prestel centres. The services offered were similar to teletext services – news, sport, weather…

‘Electronic Insight’ set out to provide a comparison database of all electronic products available at the time. It forced through a telesoftware standard, and PC user groups agreed to offer public domain software for free downloads. A database of chargeable downloads was developed.

EMAP acquired Electronic Insight and created Micronet 800. With the resources of Prestel and EMAP behind it, this set out to be much more ambitious and offered turnkey solutions to connect leading PCs to Prestel. These were developed by Prism Microproducts. Micronet 800 had 30,000 subscribers in 1985, with a million page views per week; Prestel peaked at only 90,000 users.

1979 Gérard Théry, Director General for Telecommunications in France, announced it would fund the free issue of low-cost viewdata terminals by the simple expedient of offering phone users a straight choice – the usual bulky white telephone book or a Minitel terminal. By getting into volume production it drove down the cost of the terminals and became the most successful network prior to the Web.

The Minitel ‘dumb’ terminal consisted of a screen, a keyboard and a modem; later there were printers that could be attached to the system. It offered a full telephone book and search service, access to air and rail reservations, mail order companies…

It had the weight of the national telecom organisation behind it to collect charges reliably and was therefore trusted with credit card transactions.

By 1994 Minitel had 7million terminals in use and probably delayed France’s adoption of the Web. Minitel-like services did appear in other markets – CommunityLink in the USA; AlexTel in Canada; Telecom Eireann in Ireland; Viditel in The Netherlands.

Planned to be closed in 2009, Minitel found its directory enquiries service was still being used a million times per month, and it was reprieved.

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