Internet-like technology, circa 1983

IT World profiled Viewtron, AT&T’s implementation of Videotex, as an interesting what-if. Think of it as 1983′s version of WebTV. What if it had caught on? Why didn’t it?
It’s important to note that this wasn’t the Internet. It was an online service, along the lines of AOL prior to the mid 1990s or Compuserve. These services offered news, e-mail, message boards, and shopping much like the Internet did, but there was a much narrower selection of each. Unlike the decentralized Internet, where any Joe (or Dave) can set up a web page, offering content or products through these services required a partnership with the owner of the service.

Although AT&T’s Videotex failed, similar services thrived. Compuserve was extremely successful, as were a number of competitors. GEnie, run by General Electric, did well for about a decade. Prodigy, a joint venture between IBM and Sears, added an attractive graphical interface. And the nascent first AOL appeared in 1983, initially as an online game service for Atari consoles. When that failed, they used the infrastructure to build an online service called Quantumlink (or Q-Link) for Commodore computers, which was very successful. During the late 1980s, Q-Link was ported to Apple II, Macintosh, and IBM-compatible computers. These services later evolved into the AOL that everyone either loved or loved to hate in the mid 1990s.

Had AT&T been more patient, I think Viewtron could have survived for the same reason all of the other services of the 1980s and 1990s did. Initially it used its own terminal, rather than running on a general-purpose home computer, but later they made it available via computer too. Viewtron’s biggest problem was that it appeared in 1983. People were certainly interested in computers in 1983, but were apprehensive. I asked my parents in 1983 if we could get a computer, and both of my parents said, “We’d like to get one, but if you buy one right now, by the time you get it home, get it hooked up, and learn how to do a few things, there’s a new one out that’s better and cheaper.”

That was called the Osborne Effect. Mom and Dad probably never knew who Adam Osborne was, but they’d heard of the principle that bears his name. And, looking back today, there was some truth in it. In 1982, a 5K Commodore VIC-20 cost $299 and a 64K Commodore 64 cost $595. In 1983, the Commodore 64 cost $299. So do I blame my parents for wanting to wait and see what was going to happen in 1984? No.

In 1983, people were getting used to the idea that they could have a computer in their home, and trying to decide what they would do with it. People found telecommunications interesting, but it wasn’t the highest priority.

AT&T and its partners pulled the plug on Viewtron in 1986, after spending $50 million on it. It never became available nationwide. Given more patience, I think it could have survived. After all, in 1986, Q-Link had only been available for a year, and Prodigy’s release was still two years away. Viewtron’s biggest problem was its timing.

But ultimately they all faded away after the Internet appeared. In the early 1990s, there were still things available from online services that you couldn’t get for free on the Internet–most notably, news. But if you wanted e-mail and to download files, plain old Internet access was cheaper. And there were lots of quirky and interesting web pages out there, mostly created by ordinary guys named Joe (or Dave) who were in college and had accounts on their universities’ Unix computers.

Online services survived another decade or so by adding Internet access as part of their monthly subscription, but once the Internet reached critical mass, it was impossible to compete with it. A newspaper the size of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasn’t going to spend the money to put itself on Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL when they could spend the money once to put themselves on the Internet and reach a wider audience.

Today it’s possible to get far more on the Internet than any online service ever offered on its own. But arguably the closed, proprietary online services set the stage for what was to come.

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