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The Internet Technology

Why Didn't the Internet Take Off In 1983? 469

Posted by samzenpus
from the failure-to-thrive dept.
jfruh writes "An amazing pair of videos from the AT&T archives tout a service called Viewtron that brought much of what we expect from the modern Internet to customers' homes in 1983. Online news, banking services, restaurant reviews, shopping, e-mail — all were available on your TV set, controlled by a wireless infrared keyboard. The system had 15,000 customers in cities on the U.S. east coast, but was shut down after $50 million was spent on it. But why did it flop? Was the world just not ready for it?"
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Why Didn't the Internet Take Off In 1983?

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  • by click2005 (921437) * on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:32AM (#39217603)

    I didnt see it so i'm asking... was it a walled garden with adverts?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Its a youtube video.

      • by Taco Cowboy (5327) on Friday March 02, 2012 @05:14AM (#39218573) Journal

        You know how fast are the network connections in between cities back in the early 1980's?

        300 baud - that's the speed for an "ultra fast" modem

        Yes, we do have "networks" back then, it's called "FidoNet", and it's the sysops (system operators) who are carrying out all those internode connections

        • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Friday March 02, 2012 @08:57AM (#39219437) Homepage

          You know how fast are the network connections in between cities back in the early 1980's?

          300 baud - that's the speed for an "ultra fast" modem

          Yes, we do have "networks" back then, it's called "FidoNet", and it's the sysops (system operators) who are carrying out all those internode connections

          I was a hobby sysop in 1983-4, the main concern then was shuttling data about efficiently under the phone company tariff structures (~$20/hr for any call over about 50 miles distance, at 300 baud that's about $0.20 per page (1KB) of text transferred.) I sketched out a system to transfer data between nodes in a pattern of overlapping free local calling zones, but organizing a network of any size was difficult, and even a minimal BBS node was costing around $1000 to buy plus $15ish per month for a dedicated phone line, so there were plenty of cheaper, and frankly more interesting, hobbies around.

          I imagine from the phone company's perspective, the main concern was maximizing return on their investment in infrastructure (cable, switching offices), at that time AT&T stock had been one of the best investments available for several decades.

          • by Taco Cowboy (5327) on Friday March 02, 2012 @09:13AM (#39219499) Journal

            I just have to salute all the Sysops out there, who somehow managed to keep the world-wide FidoNet (and several other smaller net) working, despite all odds

            What happened on Dec-31-1983 illustrates the greatness of the many un-named Sysops all around the world:

            Someone from Australia posted a "Happy New Year" greeting on one of the Fidonet newsgroups on Dec-31-1983

            The message reached America some 5 hours later (to those un-initiated, FidoNet messages did not travel on light-speed, unlike Emails nowadays) and someone in America replied his "Happy New Year" greeting

            That reply message took another 8 hours or so to got back to Australia, just in time for the original Australian message poster to receive on 23:57 that very same day

            It was just a message, a simple message, but behind it, the round-trip message had travelled more than 60 hops

            Meaning - for that single message, it took the effort of more than 60 Sysops to make it happened

            For this, please allow me to salute all the Sysops for a job Well Done !!!

            • By 1985, FidoNet was going strong, and I think the bulk of its traffic was grabbing free rides on the early internet - I remember a strong mirror between Indiana and Miami that was just one or two hops... this was pretty typical for FidoNet - I think these guys had access to University networks.

              There were other networks that ran off of "phone phreaks'" stolen credit card numbers and other billing dodge tricks, but those links tended to be more like ham radio, unpredictable and short lived, not that the oper

              • by Mashiki (184564)

                They must have had university networks. Because when I was running my BBS in 1990-1995 people were still calling into local and LD hubs to upload/download packs. I was using the internet for my packs in '90. Which was still pretty typical of fidonet when most people still didn't have internet access. To be honest, internet access didn't really take off until 1996-1998 or so when computers became dirt cheap for everyone. I remember that as the year of the celery(celerons) which cut the cost of dirt chea

                • by Creepy (93888)

                  There were restrictions on commercial internet traffic until 1995, when NSFNET [wikipedia.org] was decommissioned, and there was already a demand for it, mostly from ex-university students like me that had grown used to having Internet (then with a capital I). Also there was a lot of migration from dial up services, especially as some of those services also added Internet connectivity.

          • by Amouth (879122) on Friday March 02, 2012 @09:38AM (#39219625)

            $0.20 per KB.. still better than today's SMS rates..

            AT&T charges $0.20 per SMS = 140 Bytes.. or ~$1.46 per KB

          • by msauve (701917)
            A lot of Fidonet traffic was passed using PC Pursuit. This was a service which made use of Telenet's excess off-hours capacity on their X.25 network. You would connect to a local dialup number, transit their X.25 network, and then dial out from a remote location, avoiding toll fees. The phone connections on both ends were local. I operated as an NEC (Net Echomail Coordinator) for a few years using that service to exchange mail with other nets.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The system's total storage was around 2 million pages!

      Its basically an interactive teletext http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teletext service.

      • Re:Ready? (Score:5, Informative)

        by leuk_he (194174) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:51AM (#39218475) Homepage Journal

        Yes, and that would have been enough to start.

        However the thinking of AT&T at that tie was "pay per minute", which would translate to pay per page. Imagine that you would go on the internet and pay one cent for every page you vistited, correct of not. The only way to boot it was to make it available for free, just like the BBS hobby systems that came shortly after this.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by jonadab (583620)
          Furthermore:

          > much of what we expect from the modern Internet to customers' homes in 1983.
          > Online news, banking services, restaurant reviews, shopping, e-mail

          With the exception of email, these are not the things that make the internet popular. Don't get me wrong: these things *are* popular on the internet, and once people get the internet they like having access to that stuff. But for most people who don't *have* the internet, those are not the important selling points (with, as I said, the except
    • Re:Ready? (Score:5, Funny)

      by mjwx (966435) on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:55AM (#39218015)

      I didn't see it so I'm asking... was it a walled garden with adverts?

      It was the 80's, everyone was too busy with hairspray, good music and doing coke to care about the internet.

      Plus at 28.8K it was faster to go to the shop to get porn.

      • I was online in 1983 (Score:5, Informative)

        by mcgrew (92797) * on Friday March 02, 2012 @07:16AM (#39219057) Homepage Journal

        It was called CompuServe, and IIRC was $3 per month. But there were a lot of reasons being online didn't take off.

        One was technology. 300 baud was the norm, far slower than 28.8, The most powerful PC at the time (I'll get disagreement over this; Amiga for one) was the IBM XT. 8088 processor, 64k of memory, and a humungous ten meg hard drive. Cost was prohibitive, an IBM cost thousands of dollars.

        There was little content and no search capabilities.

        It was a walled garden.

        "Why in the world do you have a computer?" Only us nerds had computers back then.

        It was text only, with no hypertext.

        I found it to be pretty useless. Later in the decade I was on the BBSes on a used IBM with 28.8, and even then my online presence was mostly sharing software. An email could take days to be delivered, since the BBSes were seldom online 24/7 and few had many connections. I still got most of my software on floppies from shareware stores.

        The internet didn't happen because nobody and nothing was ready for it. The internet happened when it was time for it to happen.

        It was the 80's, everyone was too busy with hairspray, good music and doing coke to care about the internet.

        I saw far more hair spray in the '60s, most music sucked than as badly as now (although thankfully disco had died and there was a lot of good rock and roll). Most music has always sucked. The "90% of everything is crap" has always been true. And coke was always too expensive for most people to do much of; coke was mostly a yuppie thing.

    • Re:Ready? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ozmanjusri (601766) <aussie_bob@@@hotmail...com> on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:56AM (#39218021) Journal
      It's an American imitation of the French Minitel network http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minitel [wikipedia.org]

      It probably failed where Minitel succeeded because it's owners needed to commercialize it too early in its development life.

      • Re:Ready? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by phayes (202222) on Friday March 02, 2012 @06:08AM (#39218809) Homepage

        ...It probably failed where Minitel succeeded...

        Bleh, Revisionism of the first order. My first job in France over 25 years ago was programming a minitel server so I know what I'm talking about.

        Minitel only succeeded if you omit the massive investments France Telecom & the French government made in developing & deploying it. "Free" terminals, massive investment write-offs, special development funding that was systematically forgotten when cooking the books to show how "profitable" the minitel was. The only reason the Minitel took so long to die off is that they mandated a number of services to only be available on it way back & refused funding to make it available on the Internet.

        I've read through the entire thread & not one person picked up on two of the biggest reasons it failed:
        - The Minitel was setup as a means of making sure that France Telecom got a cut of any money made on it. Minitel was setup so that customers were billed by FT for all services & FT transferred some of the money to whoever proposed the service. It was much like Apple's Appstore model but where Apple is generally liked by those on the appstore, FT wasn't. People thing Apple is greedy with their 30% cut? FT was worse...
        - Minitel was based on X25, not IP. Those old enough to have suffered through the installation & maintenance of X25 networks know why it failed.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:35AM (#39217609)

    Probably because it was ridiculously limited by Internet standards. The Internet took off because you could do pretty much anything with it. The only limits were the technology of the computers and connections, and that technology increased and continues to increase exponentially. The services that AT&T offered were simply not worth the expense. The Internet, when it was eventually privatized, was.

    • by SomePgmr (2021234) on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:41AM (#39217643) Homepage

      Yeah I never saw it (I was a little kid then), but my guess is, "It did all those things badly, phone time wasn't free, it was expensive and trial users, when asked, said they wouldn't pay what they'd have to charge."

      Just a guess though.

      • by nospam007 (722110) * on Friday March 02, 2012 @05:49AM (#39218725)

        In the eighties we were on Compuserve. I paid around 1.5$ per hour phone charges to connect.
        We had offline readers that quickly downloaded stuff we previously determined and hang up.
        People charged by the minute do this even nowadays with the web. No biggie.
        We bought Blue-Jeans, Coffee, Books and other stuff there as well just like now.
        OTOH the multi-player online games were text-only.

        And now get off my lawn.

      • by mwvdlee (775178)

        I remember using the Dutch version (called Videotex). It was expensive, slow, had very few interresting services, and was mostly one-way.

    • by steelfood (895457) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:13AM (#39218103)

      Oh boy... Terminology, folks, terminology.

      The Internet didn't "take off" in 1983 for reasons that are completely unrelated to why this product failed. Most of it was because in 1983, computers were slow, modems were slow, and communication via the Internet wasn't nearly as practical as sneakernet. Imagine waiting a half second for each character of the (text) file you requested to appear on your screen. Those were the days of the 2400 baud modems, which were in fact that slow.

      The only reason why people used the Internet was to communicate a very large amount of information over long distances to a multitude of individuals--distances beyond what a day trip could reach, and enough information to enough people that a quick series of telephone calls couldn't otherwise convey. There were the occasional hobbyists, tinkerers, and computer and engineering geeks--actually, the ones using the Internet were mostly them. The anomalies were the regular people.

      This particular service didn't take off probably because competing services like Compuserv and Prodigy were cheaper and better. This service didn't take off more likely because their business model sucked, their management sucked, their product sucked, or some combination thereof. Services like Compuserv were ultimately supplanted by the World Wide Web because the WWW allowed anybody and everybody to generate their own content. But prior to the rise of the WWW, these services were the norm. Even now, there are some unexpected hundreds of thousands of actual subscribers to AOL (as opposed to the people who subscribed, and just kept paying their bills despite no longer using the service), because a lot of people only need and only desire such services. Not that the WWW isn't superior, but back then, the WWW didn't stand a chance. The only reason why the WWW took off was because the speed of computers, as well as the speed of modems, became acceptable. After modems broke 9600 baud speed barrier, access to the Internet was good enough for using the WWW.

      And to make it clear, since this was my original point, the WWW is not the Internet. It is only a small part of it, though it is currently the most visible part of the Internet. But it is not the Internet.

      • by crankyspice (63953) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:40AM (#39218223)

        Imagine waiting a half second for each character of the (text) file you requested to appear on your screen. Those were the days of the 2400 baud modems, which were in fact that slow.

        Actually...

        (1) A 2400 baud modem would transmit approximately 274 7-bit (ASCII) characters per second (assuming 8N1) on a clean line. However...

        (2) In 1983, 300 or (for the big spenders) 1200 baud was a lot more common. As late as 1988, 2400 bps connections commanded a premium (e.g., the GEnie service charged double the per-hour connection fee for dialing into their 2400 baud modem bank -- separate phone numbers -- versus their "up to 1200 baud" pool. 2400 was the fastest supported.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GEnie [wikipedia.org]

        The Hayes Smartmodem 300 was introduced in 1981; before that, it was all acoustic couplers for normal folks, even 3l33t ones with high-end IMSAI systems who were intelligent, but under-achievers, alienated from their parents, with few friends (and of course, at the time, such people would have been classic cases for recruitment by the Soviets).

        But even at 300 baud, you'd get ~30 characters per second, more if any sort of compression was being used.

        IIRC, 1200 baud was about where text trickled in at about the same speed at which I could read it comfortably, and (for me) ushered in the era of the BBS, the original multiplayer shared universes (there was a text-based space trade / exploration / combat game on GEnie I was kind of addicted to, at age 12 -- I think it was Stellar Emperor aka MegaWars III: http://web.archive.org/web/20020607113100/http://www3.sympatico.ca/maury/games/space/megawars_iii.html [archive.org])...

        • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Friday March 02, 2012 @05:05AM (#39218529)

          For something to succeed, technology has to be up to a certain standard. You can have the idea for something and build the basis of it often long before tech is ready to make it truly useable. The Internet started to take off when a few things had happened:

          1) Enough tech for Internet services had been developed and was in a useful state. Thing like the web. The whole HTML/HTTP thing made the Internet a hell of a lot more useful for normal people. However it wasn't there in 1983, it didn't get developed until 1990 and then took some time before it was well hashed out with apps to support it.

          2) Enough computer tech to make it useful. Mostly modems. As the parent noted, back in the early 80s you were talking 1200 baud which is pretty painful for anything but text, and even slow for that. Wasn't until things were 10x that fast or more that you really had the basics of what you needed for reasonable speeds on more enriched content.

          3) Enough communications infrastructure and tech to make it affordable. The big connections ISPs needed between each other had to drop in price to where dialup could be offered to end users for a reasonable price. Most people weren't going to drop hundreds of dollars a month on access to something that was mostly a toy at the time and that meant there was only so much an ISP could afford to pay for bandwidth.

          Only when all the technology was right could the Internet ever really take off. Hence it took until the early to mid 90s before everything was in place. Then indeed it did start exploding. However it really wasn't going to happen earlier because the requisite tech didn't exist. There's a difference between being able to do something, and able to do it well, and you have to do something well enough before the mass market will be interested.

          As another example take compressed/downloadable music. The basic tech existed for that long before it got big. However the problem was that everything wasn't in place for it to work well. I remember playing with MP3 in 1995 (which of course wasn't the first compressed format) and loving it. However I had to drop to DOS to play the files, it took 100% of my CPU time and the little the higher level OS took was too much. Likewise transferring them was really not feasible. A 5 minute song ran you like 4.8MB which would take 46 minutes on my mighty 14.4 (28.8s were too expensive for me then) meaning an album could take days to send. None of this is to mention the time ripping and encoding took (over an hour a song easy).

          It was something I messed with only because I'm an audio geek and I thought it was cool. However later computers got fast enough to play MP3s not just in Windows, but in the background, songs could transfer in a couple minutes, and so on. All of a sudden there was interest in this (around about 1999/2000).

          The fundamental tech to make it possible in theory wasn't enough, and never is. Tech as a whole has to be to a level to make it practical, useful.

      • by Zenin (266666) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:46AM (#39218253) Homepage

        "Imagine waiting a half second for each character of the (text) file you requested to appear on your screen. Those were the days of the 2400 baud modems, which were in fact that slow."

        What utter crap.

        2,400 baud is 2,400 bits per second...even with overhead that's 240 characters per second, a far cry from 0.5 characters per second you claim. Not even the 300/1200 Apple modem I started with was that slow. Hell, telex of the 1940s was still five times faster then your claim of half a second.

  • no pc (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:35AM (#39217611)
    nobody had a computer at home
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The Radio Shack TRS-80 model one and Apple II were two of the better known home computers around then. Not many could afford one, but the Apple Lisa came out in 1983 and saw some features added afterwards. It had a GUI similar to the Mac, hard drive, virtual memory, protected memory, expansion slots, and multitasking.

    • Re:no pc (Score:4, Informative)

      by macshit (157376) <miles.gnu@org> on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:45AM (#39218243) Homepage

      nobody had a computer at home

      Not really true. Lots of people, even relatively "ordinary" people had computers at home back then, albeit somewhat crappy computers by today's standards. I was the hacker type in my family, so I had a single-board thingy which I programmed in assembly—but my completely non-techy brother had an Atari 400 (cheap, mostly used for games, but a real computer nonetheless). Friends had VIC-20s, some richer ones had the original IBM PC or Apple IIs, the Commodore 64 was gaining popularity, etc. The TRS-80 etc had been around for years.

      Obviously many fewer people had computers then than now, but computer ownership was definitely gaining at that point, and starting to go beyond the enthusiast class (often in the guise of a "game machine with a keyboard", many of which were relatively cheap).

    • by Casandro (751346) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:14AM (#39218357)

      In France a simmilar system took off, because they gave out free terminals. In Germany some TV-sets could be ordered with buildt-in Bildschirmtext decoders.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBfvIh2K4G0 [youtube.com]

      The problem with all of those services was that they were walled gardens, so they only had very limited use. It was sold as a service, complete with content. It actually cost a significant amount of money to get your own page which. That, and the possibility to have people pay per page access or minute (WTF) caused the system to be used only for for 2 applications, Banking, and Pornography.

      It had nothing to do with the bandwidth or the graphic capabilities. Back in the 1990s when the transition happened you were lucky to get 200 characters per second from some US site while Bildschirmtext (the German variant) already have you additional content from CD-Roms. From the users perspective the Internet was a big step down, but since it was so free and open and not just a "business model" all the good content was on it. The Internet was "free as speech" even though it was a bit more expensive and slower. Of course there were also BBSes which had a certain amount of popularity among private homes.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBfvIh2K4G0 [youtube.com]

  • No Porn! (Score:5, Funny)

    by zippo01 (688802) on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:36AM (#39217621)
    Enough said.
    • Re:No Porn! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by hcs_$reboot (1536101) on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:11AM (#39217807)
      And the French Minitel [wikipedia.org] launched in 1982 had porn. It's all about competition.
      • by roman_mir (125474)

        The development of Minitel spawned the creation of many start-up companies in a manner similar to the later dot-com bubble of Internet-related companies. Similarly, many of those small companies floundered and failed because of an overcrowded market or bad business practices (lack of infrastructure for online retailers). The messageries roses ("pink messages", adult chat services) and other pornographic sites were also criticized for their possible use by under-age children. The government chose not to enact coercive measures, however, stating that the regulation of the online activities of children was up to parents, not the government. The government also enacted a tax on pornographic online services.

        - Something weird about the French understanding a little more on freedom than Americans.

  • Why? It sucked. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RubberChainsaw (669667) on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:37AM (#39217627)
    It had a high initial equipment investment, was slow (painfully slow), didn't look all that good compared to actual TV, had hourly charges, and very limited content. Users couldn't make their own content. The service was only for consumption. By the time the internet really took off, in the mid 90's, speeds were faster, the images were good, and there was a lot more content to peruse. What really let the internet take off was the fact that people could easily create their own content.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I hate to say this. But I think it is PORN that help the internet fly.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Exactly. People don't love the Internet because it's a glorified interactive TV or a fancy product catalog. It's a completely different communications platform, where you can do pretty much whatever you want.
    • Re:Why? It sucked. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by MBGMorden (803437) on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:49AM (#39217693)

      Yep. I started using the internet in the mid-1990's when it had a few years on it but still wasn't quite universal like it is now. When one of the teachers at school was showing this cool new technology they were even describing all the now long forgotten things like Gopher and Finger. The main thing I saw that kicked off widespread usage was simple: "unlimited" usage policies.

      Nobody really was interested when you paid for an AOL account and got 5 hours online. They weren't interested when they bumped that up to 20, 40, nor 80. People really didn't seem to bother much until they were told "Here, use this all you want.". Having the average price of a dial-up account fall from $30-40 down to $10-15 per month certainly didn't hurt either.

      Its kinda funny though that now that as a society we're hooked, it's trending in the opposite direction. A cellular data plan is typically $30+ and has limits that you can actually hit pretty easily with normal usage patterns.

      • by spacey (741)

        Yes, the cell carriers will have a disruptive change hit them at some point, though. Their pricing is exorbitant and can't be sustained.

        • Re:Why? It sucked. (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Tastecicles (1153671) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:12AM (#39218095)

          This is why Hutchison 3G is the fastest growing mobile carrier in the UK. Shameless plug, because I use it and think it's the best thing since punch cards, for £15/mo and no contract you get 300 voice minutes on any UK network, 3,000 SMS texts and the ONLY TRULY UNLIMITED INTERNET* of ANY UK carrier.

          *I managed somehow to cause my local tower to blow a chip, rendering it inoperable. I called tech support, and in two days they had not only replaced the chip, they had replaced the tower with a bigger one. When I asked them if my downloading 6GB/day (low average) might have had anything to do with the tower failure, the reply stunned me:

          "You paid for unlimited bandwidth, use it for what you want - torrents, web server, whatever. It's your bandwidth. Our job is to make sure you get what you paid for"

          I mean, NO FAIR USE POLICY!? That's unheard of! Especially on a cellular plan!

          This is why I'm not going back to unreliable, capped, ripoff-merchant Virgin Media.

    • by ultranova (717540)

      What really let the internet take off was the fact that people could easily create their own content.

      Hear hear. The real value of Internet is that all the stories, art etc. that people create and used to hide in their desk drawers is now available online. Sturgeon's law still holds, of course, but so does the law of lots of monkeys on typewriters. Commercial content is just a nice bonus.

  • PC's (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The internet just doesn't work as well with TVs as it does with PC's. Look at internet-connected smart TVs today. A recent study says that 50% of them are never connected to the internet. I think it's because people don't want to "do things" with their TVs. They just want to sit back and watch. PCs and more recently smartphones are associated with doing things. People saw the PC with a keyboard and associated it with getting stuff done. The internet was an instrument to get more stuff done faster and with p

    • Look at internet-connected smart TVs today. A recent study says that 50% of them are never connected to the internet. I think it's because people don't want to "do things" with their TVs. They just want to sit back and watch.

      Amen. Mine was connected long enough to discover that navigating the thing was so cumbersome it was faster to walk to the study, start my machine, grab the Youtube content and stick it on my MythTV box. Or get the weather, or flight times, or play games, or ...

      • by wvmarle (1070040)

        Look at internet-connected smart TVs today. A recent study says that 50% of them are never connected to the internet. I think it's because people don't want to "do things" with their TVs. They just want to sit back and watch.

        Amen. Mine was connected long enough to discover that navigating the thing was so cumbersome it was faster to walk to the study, start my machine, grab the Youtube content and stick it on my MythTV box. Or get the weather, or flight times, or play games, or ...

        Your comment actually contradicts the original statement, it doesn't confirm it. You imply that you DO want to do things on your TV, other than watch TV programming on it. The reason for you not to use it for Internet is that the TV is simply not up to the task - primarily due to a poor user interface. And that's a totally different reason than what GP suggested.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:42AM (#39217651)

    http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/carlson/history/viewtron.htm

    At launch, they cost $900 and were reduced to $600 when demand was soft. Further, a subscription in Miami cost $12 a month, plus long distance phone charges, if any. There also were additional charges for Hallmark Cards (electronic mail) of $2 per card or 50 cents for stationery. After May, 1984, the partners gave up trying to sell the Sceptre Terminals and changed the pricing system to be $39.95 a month including terminal rental.

    Too goddamned expensive. $900 in 1983 was $2,080 in 2012 dollars. [dollartimes.com]

    Who the hell is willing to throw down $2000 for an untested system? Maybe if they'd started at $39.95 a month ($92.37 in 2012 dollars [dollartimes.com]) it would've been able to get off the ground, but the original price point likely killed it.

  • by safetyinnumbers (1770570) on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:44AM (#39217659)
    There was Minitel [wikipedia.org] in France, and Prestel [wikipedia.org] in the UK, that had some success.
  • BBS's were better (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:46AM (#39217673)

    If you were online in 1983, a BBS was the place to be. FidoNet was founded in 1984, so it was the dawn of an exciting era.

  • Duh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by colonel (4464) on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:48AM (#39217683) Homepage

    There was no self-publishing, it was not a platform, not an infrastructure, it was a centralized service that didn't interact with similar services from competitors.

    Connect-from-home services like these popped up *all the time* in the 70s, 80s and early 90s from cable companies, newspapers, telcos and similar -- but they all died because they were all walled gardens designed to keep out the competitors of their parent companies.

    The only services that thrived were the ones that had no parent companies with business models to protect -- AOL and Compuserve -- which died off when they connected themselves to the government/academic internet thingy and real competition started.

    What's interesting is how many of these walled gardens evolved from voice-based IVR systems hosted by major newspapers in the 70s-90s where you could dial up and listen to your horroscope, sports, movie showtimes, etc. over the phone. Those systems got more and more and more complex over time, and if you carried a wallet-card of numbers and keypad commands, you could access a world of information from payphones or borrowed landlines while you were on the go! For a small monthly fee, you could get a voicemail box that you could check while you were on the go if you wanted to stay reachable but couldn't afford a pager.

  • Pictures (Score:4, Interesting)

    by michaelmalak (91262) <michael@michaelmalak.com> on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:52AM (#39217717) Homepage

    Like many, I took the Internet for granted as a geek-only thing and was surprised when it caught on with the general public in the mid-90's. One explanation I've heard for its sudden adoption is that the web brought pictures to the Internet for the first time. And the 100x100 3-bit Wizard and the Princess graphics shown in this Viewtron don't count.

    • by witherstaff (713820) on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:51AM (#39217997) Homepage

      Part of the sudden adoption was the free market at work, at least in the states. The 1996 telco reform act allowed companies other than the monopolies to handle local phone calls. That's why there were thousands of ISPS that opened up overnight, cheap phone lines. It also had a nice confluence of technology and society. Technology was also improving so that suddenly all those racks and racks of modems could be jammed into rack mount cards cheaply. Also you had all those college kids who liked it and got into the real world and still wanted the convenience of email and other services.. That's the power of the free market.

      Of course Bush Jr put Powel's son in charge of the FCC, they rolled back the telco reform because monopolies liked being monopolies, and suddenly every non-monopoly ISP goes out of business. The US bandwidth speeds become a joke compared to the rest of the modern world. That's corporatism at work.

  • by scottbomb (1290580) on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:54AM (#39217727) Journal

    They were the most popular online service although there may have been one or two others. If you had a Commodore 64, an Apple IIe, or any of the various computers of the day, and you had a modem, you were good to go. It was expensive though, and relatively few people were on it, but it was pretty cool at the time.

  • It wasn't even new on AT&T. France had Minitel in 1982. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minitel [wikipedia.org]

    These systems were neat, sure. Were they the internet? No. Noooo---ooo. No.

  • It takes time for ideas to catch on and really come into their own. All the various precursors to the internet were necessary steps in the process of delivering what we have today. I suppose it all started with television in a way. Call it what you will, but isn't that pretty much what we're all sitting in front of right now?
  • because they tried to take a home entertainment device where people sit together and relax doing nothing, and they incorporated business activities where people needed to ignore each other and dedicate their focus to something requiring their interaction.

    that's what a desk is for. and it's better for that reason. that's why monitor's are better than televisions. so until humans choose to work from their couch, you can't give them a keyboard for it.

    tell me, what's the correct ergonomic seating position fo

  • Amateur programmers couldn't run and test their own code on it.

    If nascent code monkeys weren't interested, then you lose the wow factor pretty quickly.

    GEnie, Compuserve, Applelink, and AOL had some success because they were 1/2 BBS-like and 1/2 virtual desktop publishing.

    One look at Mosaic + HTML, though, and it was painfully obvious that not only could you publish your random crap without AOL, but you could spend an eternity tinkering and extending it.

  • Online services (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dan East (318230) on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:00AM (#39217763) Homepage Journal

    Why Didn't the Internet Take Off In 1983?

    Viewtron was just another America Online, Prodigy, Compuserve, etc (but even worse, because it was also hardware based). A proprietary walled garden of content that nickel and dimed users to death, with very limited selection, slow performance, and expensive hardware. Take the banking for example. How many banks do you think were plugged into their service? I bet it was only one, and that was more for bragging rights and an advertising tic mark than anything else. 10 cents to send an email? Not exactly going to foster an explosive growth of online communication that way.

    Here's why the Internet "won", and this service and the others I listed that were like it have gone the way of the dodo. The internet is open. It is open standards, on top of more open standards, on top of even more open standards. It wasn't built for consumers. It wasn't built for money grubbing corporations to rule over. First and foremost it was built to move data between any two computers on a network that could grow to fast proportions. THAT is why it is a success. I was fortunate to have been on the internet before the www, back when usenet, email, ftp, irc and gopher were king. Even before the glitz and glamor of HTML and the internet that the world knows now, the power of the internet was abundantly clear, even though the learning curve and interface weren't conducive to the average person (ahhh, the days of ftping pirated Amiga software from college servers).

    Viewtron put the cart in front of the horse - it was meant to make money and grant control to a single corporate entity. It was not about open networking and raw connectivity between computing devices. That is "Why Didn't the Internet Take Off In 1983".

  • It looks like they had many of the practical uses spot on. These two statements, however turned out quite wrong.

    1) This may look like something out of the 25th century...
    2) It all adds up to more time to enjoy live, and more life to enjoy.

  • by crispytwo (1144275) on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:05AM (#39217785)

    The people that made the internet viable early on were people who both understood what the network could provide and wanted it.

    Those of us who spent our nights dialing between BBSes and trading phone numbers were waiting in the shadows for something more connected. Once the internet became more available (i.e. not just military or universities) climbed on board as soon as we could. It is this kind of group that made the network valuable. This Viewtron system was very closed and controlled. As a user you had access to commercial stuff, but nothing shared between users other than email. The one major thing it missed was porn -- 20/20.

    Otherwise it is a barely usable brick targeted to people who don't care anyway. It's a certain flop. No surprise.

    It is interesting how forward thinking it was though. 15000 people is quite a few, but only 1/1000th of what was needed to recover costs.

  • We had something very similar here in Ottawa, Ontario. It was called NABU [wikipedia.org] and consisted of a Z80-based computer hooked into the cable TV network. I remember it had quite a few (crappy) games and what we would today call cloud apps, since the base unit had no local storage, everything happened server-side. I remember it being pretty friggin cool at the time, compared to the 2400 baud modem I had on my Atari, but limited availability and lack of updates prevented it from taking off. It lasted only a few y

  • by Baldrson (78598) * on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:24AM (#39217853) Homepage Journal
    From the Way Back archives [archive.org].

    I wrote the following article during my tenure as the chief architect for the mass-market videotex experiment conducted by AT&T and Knight-Ridder News called "Viewtron" -- a service of the joint-venture company, Viewdata Corporation of America.

    As can be sensed in the article, I had encountered some fairly frustrating situations and was about to be told by the corporate authorities that my telecomputing architecture, which would have provided a dynamically downloaded Forth graphics protocol in 1983 evolving into a distributed Smalltalk-like environment beginning around 1985, would be abandoned due to a corporate commitment to stick with Tandem Computers as the mainframe vendor -- a choice which I had asserted would not be adequate for my architecture. (At least Postscript survived.) I was subsequently offered the head telecomputing software position at Prodigy by IBM and turned it down when they indicated they would not support my architecture either, due to a committment to limit merchant access to their network to only those who had a special status with the service provider (IBM/CBS/Sears). The distributed Smalltalk system was specifically designed to allow the sort of grassroots commerce now emerging in the world wide web -- particularly as people recognize JavaScript is similar to the Self programming language and the Common Lisp Object System. This wasn't in keeping with IBM's philosophy at that time since they had yet to be humbled by Bill Gates.

    My independent attempt at developing this sort of service was squashed by the U.S. government when it provided UUCP/Usenet service to a competitor in San Diego and would not offer me the same subsidy via MILnet -- a network that was not for public access, by law, and which was exclusively for military use. My complaints to DoD investigators resulted in continual "We're looking into it." replies.

    Videotex Networking and The American Pioneer

    by Jim Bowery (circa 1982)

    With the precipitous drop in the price of information technology, computer-based communication has come within the technical and economic reach of the mass-market. The term generally used for this mass-market is "videotex" because it reduces the cost of entry into the home by using the most ubiquitous video display device, the television screen, to deliver its service.

    The central importance of this new market is that it brings the capital cost of establishing a publication with nation-wide distribution to within the reach of the mass-market as well. This means that anyone who is a "consumer" of information on this new technology can also be a "producer" of information. The distinction between editorial staff and readership need no longer be a function of who has how much money, but rather, who has the greatest consumer appeal. The last time an event of this magnitude took place was the invention of the offset printer which brought the cost of publication to within the reach of small businesses. That democratization of cultural evolution was protected in our constitution under freedom of the press. Freedom of speech was intended for the masses. In this new technology, the distinction between press and speech is beginning to blur. Some individuals and institutions see this as removing the new media from either of the constitutional protections rather than giving it both. They see a great danger in allowing the uncensored ideas of individuals to spread across the entire nation within seconds at a cost of only a few cents. A direct quote from a person with authority in the management of this new technology: "We view videotex as 'we the institutions' providing 'you the people' with information." I wonder what our founding fathers would have thought of a statement like that.

    Mass-media influences cultural evolution in profound ways. Rather that assuming a paternalistic posture, we should be objecti

  • by powerspike (729889) on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:52AM (#39218003)
    I think You'll find is a case of Need Vs Want. It sounds like Viewtron was for entertainment Purposes Only. I was in I.T back then doing all the home setup's etc. Most of the customers where getting this "Internet thing" because they could connect to work from it. You'd tell them that they could read news etc and they where amazed. Company paying for for the connections back then, and been able use it for personal use as well what a great bonus. Alot of companies started using it for work from home style setup's as well, It saved them money, and made people happy, it also ment your sales staff etc could check in when not in the office. Business was a big driver back then, not just for the reason above, but i'm quite sure that's one of the main reasons the "internet took off" compared to various other services in the day.
  • by ukemike (956477) on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:59AM (#39218041) Homepage
    Slow, expensive, crappy, no porn, etc. are all good reasons Viewtron failed. But the biggest failure was it didn't connect people to people. It could connect people to institutions but that is about as fun as paying bills. The best applications on the early internet were about connecting people to each other. I discovered the internet in the late 80s when I went to college and Usenet was a revelation. There were discussions on every topic imaginable. It was like having a living encyclopedia. You could ask experts about subatomic particle at sci.physics or join in a debate about whether hamstering is an urban ledgend in alt.sex.bondage. It was that critical mass and diversity of people connected together that provided the vitality for the internet to hit the big time.
  • by Greyfox (87712) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:03AM (#39218059) Homepage Journal
    Text mode display. RAM measured in twos of kilobytes. I don't even remember if the modems were 300 bps at that point or if they were slower than that. You may have been able to get some X11 with a $10K+ Unix workstation, but the earliest I recall seeing that was '87. I seem to recall seeing a windows precursor (Maybe Windows 2) at the university where my dad worked around 85 or 86.

    The Internet didn't take off in '83 because computers weren't ready for it. Even after various networks started to work in university settings, it didn't become popular until the early web browsers and servers provided some content for people to... pirate.

    The CS guys who used to hang around in the NeXT lab at the university were experimenting with digitizing music in '88, too, but you didn't see MP3 players until well after that point. They weren't compressing though, and one song took up a huge chunk of the optical disk.

  • by Xeno man (1614779) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:01AM (#39218295)
    The simple reason other than cost was that there was nothing to see. Of all the services advertised, only one or two would appeal to the home user. I can do banking at home? Too bad my bank isn't supported. Check the weather? Sure I'll turn on the tv and computer, spend $10 and 30 mins downloading all the menus and eventually the local weather, or I can just pick up the paper that was delivered this morning. I can check my stocks and oh look, my stocks went up in value. Too bad my stock gains were negated by the costs it takes to check my stocks on this damn machine.

    Now news and sports. You're starting to get into an area that people want to see, unfortunately the cost, speed and quality pales in comparison to other services like tv or the paper. Even then after you spent a few minuets getting the latest news, what the hell do you do with it? Play a few crappy games that cost you way to much just to stay online?

    Think about how you use the internet. Do you spend all of you time looking at stocks or just on cooperate web sites like FOX or CNN your you bank website? Sure you might use them, (FOX? Really?) but you spend most of your time looking at contend created by regular users. Web comics, blogs, videos and forums. People that made stuff shared it on the internet and that is what got other people online. They saw it, asked for more and then made something them selves.
  • by weave (48069) on Friday March 02, 2012 @07:44AM (#39219181) Journal
    I wrote the below review of Compuserve in June, 1982. It was emailed on a Burrough's 6900 mainframe to the sys admin I knew there. Read it and understand why this stuff didn't take off at the time. (the first paragraph is about an RCA dumb terminal I bought at the time).

    btw, I altered my username because at the time student's usernames were THEIR SSN :-(

    Date: Thu, 24 Jun 1982 22:04
    From: 999999999 @ UCSC-Site
    To: BOB @ UCSC-Site
    cc: 999999999 @ UCSC-Site
    Subject: Re: Monitor
    In-Reply-To: Your message of 24 Jun 1982 09:19
    Message-ID: 0322.06.24.1982.22.04.44 @ UCSC-Site

    This terminal is quite nice for $399. It's an RCA. It has a modem built in, color graphics, and sound from 14 Hz to 230 KHz. (Why the heck do you need 230 KHz. I probably can't hear past 15KHz.) It even has a white noise generator. (Don't ask why).

    The graphics are pretty HI-RES, 240x192, but it takes forever to draw at 300 baud. One could make impressive graphs but one won't ever see Pac-Man here! You can also hook up a cassette recorder to store a heck of a lot of data for off-line viewing.

    I got a free hour on CompuServe with it. Ever been on that? They say it's simple, but it took me the whole hour just to look for one thing. The say it's menu driven. GEEEEEEZZ, they must have their menu's nested 50 levels deep!

    I was looking for the multi-user Star-Trek game that I read about. Also the CB simulation (Randall probably wrote it).

    The story of my quest:

    After drifting thru 10 pages of menus, I found the newspapers that were on-line, so I choose New York Times. They wouldn't print the %&$#& thing out unless I subscribed! The subscription was free but they wanted name, add.... I said "SCREW IT". I could imagine how many menu's were on the other side of that subscription.

    Now I had to "back up" thru the menus before I could move on. After another 10 mins. I found the home entertainment menu! I was getting closer. I didn't see Star-Trek but I did see "ELIZA - Artificial Intelligence". I decided to try it out, real quick.

    This program CompuServe has (called DISPLA) is polite. Instead of saying #SCHED 1234 it says "Please wait. I am processing your request." Sure, I think that the computer down there realizes that it's getting paid by the hour. After 2-3 mins., it starts "Tell me what's on your mind." After 5 mins I was ready to leave, "QUIT, BYE, STOP, " nothing worked. She just kept saying, "Your being short with me.". I was getting desperate, I started punching all the control codes I could. I stoped the program but I hung the terminal. Oh, well. Call back. Back to the first menu page. But I was getting better, I typed "GO HOM" and I went straight to the home entertainment section. After about 200 more menus (estimate) I found "CB simulation"! Quick, read doc. Got it, run CB. "Please wait......". After 5 mins it comes back "Your free hour is up. Would you like to subsribe?".

    All that and I never saw the program. For $5.00/hr plus $2 for Telenet, they can forget it.

    THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME ON THE B6900 !!!!!!!!!

  • by Arrogant-Bastard (141720) on Friday March 02, 2012 @08:08AM (#39219265)
    It's just that it wasn't called "the Internet", and that in part was because it was composed of disparate but interconnecting pieces. By 1983, Usenet/UUCPnet had about 500 nodes; the next year it had doubled to around 1000. CSnet was a couple of years old and was growing. Same for BITNET. And of course the ARPAnet was still expanding.

    There was no web, of course, but the web isn't the Internet. And a lot of people didn't use computers to access it -- they used terminals, connected to computers via serial lines or phone lines. But it was growing quickly, it was used heavily by folks in academia and research, and a lot of experiments/projects were underway.

    Granted, the "club" was limited: you either had to work in the right places, or be a student there. But it was already large and growing. (And one of the ironies that often strikes me is that it was quite routine for Unix users to edit with vi, format documents with troff, read mail with Berkeley mail, and issue remote execution/file retrieval requests...all at the commad line. And I don't mean CS types: I mean everyone from undergraduates to the secretarial staff. A lot of them were very fast and efficient with those tools. Compare/contrast with today. This moment of rose-colored geezer reflection brought to by the letters V, A and X and the number 780.)
  • by hey! (33014) on Friday March 02, 2012 @10:04AM (#39219791) Homepage Journal

    I started in this field in 1983, so I've watched -- *participated in* -- the rise of the Internet to what it is today. This thing isn't remotely like the Internet. It's more like a very successful category of products that the Internet swept away a decade or so later: on-line services like Delphi (founded 1983), CompuServe (founded 1969, consumer services launched in 1978), and AOL (founded 1983, consumer services launched 1985). These companies offered what amounted to a digital shopping mall, building private, closed infrastructure in which business partners could sell services and products to subscribers.

    Al Gore introduced the term "Information Superhighway" in 1978, and in the early years of the Internet we geeks often scoffed at the simplistic metaphor; but it turns out he was describing an important property of the Internet that Delphi, CompuServe and AOL didn't have. The Internet is not an information *service*; it's infrastructure. Like a superhighway, *anyone* can get on it and go anywhere they like. That was the point of the metaphor: it's about how consumers and companies used the Internet to connect with each other without a gatekeeper, not the technicalities of how internetworking is implemented. Today we'd call this property "network neutrality".

    Now the fact that access speeds have increased from 300 baud, and that people have decent video instead of some kind of RF to NSTC TV box, and that they have highly capable web browsers ... all this *contributes* to the success of the Internet. But it's not the essential thing. 1983 was pre-Google; a time when libraries still had card catalogs. Getting information was a laborious process. The success of on-line dial-up services like AOL in the late 80s and early 90s shows there was plenty of demand for addressing this problem, even if it were crude by today's standards. But as soon as the value of information accessible by the Internet exceeded what any one company could cobble together, all those dial-up services were doomed.

    It's worth considering that there's nothing to prevent someone from resurrecting the information shopping mall business model, using the computers and broadband access most people enjoy in their homes today. You could make a site the customer would log into with his browser, and which becomes the focus of all his Internet use. The reason nobody has done this is that consumers vastly prefer the network neutrality model to the shopping mall model.

    The only way to resurrect the shopping mall model is to have a captive set of users you can *force* into using the mall. That means being a regional monopoly in broadband services, or being a mobile carrier with user locked into contracts. The dream of locking subscribers into network providers' services is still alive as a dream, if not as competitive business model. If you want to see the closest modern analog to the service depicted in TFA, look at the lame information services provided by mobile carriers such as Verizon or Sprint. Anyone seriously interested in doing the kinds of things provided by those services would much prefer to use his *choice* of services (e.g., Pandora, Gmail) over a smart phone than to take whatever the mobile carrier offers.

    So to recap, the services depicted in the videos were commonplace shortly after its airing (although not with a crappy set-top box), but as soon as network-neutral technology (TCP/IP, HTTP) people abandoned them for the greater freedom of the web.

  • by morgauxo (974071) on Friday March 02, 2012 @10:13AM (#39219863)
    Remember paying for long distance? That was the main thing that kept services like this, AOL, Prodigy, etc... out of our home in the 80s. It wasn't until the mid to late 90s when there were local internet providers in most small towns that the old pre-internet networks started offering the 800 numbers. As a geek growing up in a small town BBSs and online services were a like a myth. Sure I'd heard the stories but it wasn't anything that was ever going to be a part of my reality.
  • by Whuffo (1043790) on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:37PM (#39221867) Homepage Journal

    First of all, AT&T's Viewdata was a "walled garden" (if you want to call it that). You could choose from the selections they provided, and pay by the minute for the privilege. For most folks, it was a long distance connection, too. It wasn't too early, it was totally impractical. No fun at 300 baud - when you could get it to go that fast.

    When BBS systems started to show up, there was a reason for people to use them. No "per minute / byte" charges, and other local users to chat / message with. I started a BBS when high-speed modems were 2400 baud. Over a few years it grew to 25 incoming lines, 14,400 and 28,800 access - and a huge library of files. I remember spending big bucks to buy 688 Mb ESDI drives to expand the system. At $20 per year for a subscription, it made money very well. There was FidoNet - and QWK mail, etc. to move messages around. I wrote some of that mail software myself. Whew; 4 "nodes" per 386/25 using DesqView and QEMM and LanTastic. It worked well for the day.

    But the fun was over too soon - as ISP systems became common and people could get on the Internet (remember Trumpet Winsock?) - that was the end of BBS systems. What us sysops did to help - we got people to buy modems and learn how to use them. We were the training wheels for the new Internet generation.

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