Picture the 1970s home. A typical Atomic family, 2 adults, 2 kids. Dad goes out to work, mum stays at home. The kids play out on the streets. There is probably a single Television set, in the corner of the living room, but it’s likely black and white, and quite possibly rented. There were only three TV channels, two if you had an old set, and they didn’t even broadcast in the mornings. Kids got a couple of hours of programmes in the afternoon after school. Less than half of houses had a telephone; even by 1980 that was only about 60%.
It was into this environment that the GPO launched Prestel. Conceived in the Post Office Research Centre as an easy-to-use information service, it was aimed at providing home users with instant access to all the information they could desire. Using a modified TV set connected to the telephone line, they could call up anything from horoscopes to weather forecasts, train times to washing machine reviews. It would revolutionise the world! And it would increase telephone usage at the quiet evening times!
The GPO, later British Telecom, ploughed vast sums of money developing and promoting Prestel. The technology was sold to West Germany, to Australia, to the Netherlands, and other countries’ national telephone networks worked on developing their own, often devising alternate and incompatible methods of enhancing the rather basic text-and-block-graphics that Prestel provided.
However, despite all the enthusiasm, the public takeup of all these systems was poor. Many reasons were offered – the high costs, both of equipment and usage; the poor availability of the special televisions needed; too many compromises given making it simple to use; the conversion of the TV from being a passive receiver to an interactive device .. none of the reports seem to be able to agree.
The fact was, the general public were simply not interested in an information service. Without the killer-app, as we would now say, nobody felt the need for it. Almost every viewdata/videotext service globally failed to meet it’s targets on number of users, mostly by massive margins. Prestel’s “one million users by the end of 1981” managed 14,000. The sole exception was the French Minitel system, which, after a rocky start, was only saved by France Telecom literally giving away terminals for free, replacing the paper phone books with an online directory service. Minitel lasted until 2012. Every other service had closed years earlier. Prestel itself, the first viewdata service, and the jewel in the GPOs crown, was run down and finally sold off in the mid 1990s. By 1995, it was dead.
Hindsight being that wonderful thing, we can see that what drives public takeup of services isn’t access to information, but communications between users. The huge Social Media firms these days are testament to that. Many businesses installed their first internet connections simply to access emails. Viewdata certainly could provide that interaction, but what services were offered were fragmented and often poorly regarded. Had that aspect of the services been promoted and developed early enough, who knows what might have happened.
It’s now 40 years since Prestel was launched: market trials in London in March 1979, followed that September by a full national launch. Despite the, eventual, terminal lack of users, over the fifteen or so years of it’s existence, it became everything that the Internet is today, and spawned an entire industry of competing and complimentary services, plus more than a few hobby based systems, not to mention a multitude of companies dedicated to supporting those publishing or using the services.
For the most part, outside some specialist applications, these have all now disappeared without trace. Viewdata generally, and Prestel specifically, is considered a failure; a footnote in history; yet another obscure thing the nerds did before the World Wide Web took over. However our aim here is to celebrate the heyday of this industry, and not let what was really a revolutionary concept be totally forgotten.
This website has existed for ten years now. We were disappointed that there was no celebration of the 30th anniversary; we hope the 40th will be better appreciated. We appreciate that many people will consider Viewdata to have been a dead-end technology, but it laid the groundwork for much of what was to come. Would the UK have become such a major player in the provision of on-line services were it not for the experience already gained by many companies in running consumer-facing online services? We don’t know, but it must have had an impact.
On viewdata.org.uk, we celebrate all aspects of Viewdata in the UK, and beyond. Obviously we’re concentrating on it’s heyday of the 1980s, before the World Wide Web took over, however that doesn’t stop us from covering current systems too!
We have screenshots, brochures, memories and stories, downloads, and even interactive access to demonstrations. We plan access to systems that are still running, and emulations of past services.
We’ve got examples from commercial systems (Prestel being the biggest) and from non-commercial and hobbyist systems; we’re not fussy! We would especially like to add information from systems which were not generally publicly accessible, as those are the services most likely to have vanished without trace.
Please feel free to contribute anything you have! If you were an IP on Prestel or elsewhere, and have a copy of your pages from the time, we’re able to republish them in an interactive format. Individual screenshots are still welcome, of course, as are brochures and other documents. Old backup tapes of entire systems would be especially welcome, however we’re also very interested in publishing your memories and experiences of being involved with, or just using, viewdata systems.
Our main hope is for the discs from, or a backup of, the Prestel computers themselves to surface. It seems that when they were finally switched off, nothing was officially retained. Surely somebody took home a disc or tape?
We’re also happy to exchange links with other relevant websites! Just Contact us with the details!