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The Internet Technology

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

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 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.

  • Re:Ready? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:41AM (#39217647)

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

    Its basically an interactive teletext service.

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

    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. []

    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 []) it would've been able to get off the ground, but the original price point likely killed it.

  • by spacey ( 741 ) <> on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:02AM (#39217769) Homepage

    True, that. In '92 compuserve was established, but its greatest value for geeks was that they had a usenet feed and a mail gateway (which was probably a uucp connection to uunet/alternet, but mail flowed!), and so you could communicate with the rest of the world. It's still sad that they kept denying that this was their future until they couldn't stop hemorrhaging users.

  • Re:no pc (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:09AM (#39217797)

    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.

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

    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

  • Re:No Porn! (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:34AM (#39217901)

    A great system, no malware or viruses of any kind. Access to a lot of databases, chat rooms, etc...
    Everyone had one terminal, home or business. Business could order from their suppliers online etc...
    The only 2 downsides were it was text based and the connection was billed by the minute.

    But its no surprise for it having lasted for over 2 decades in France.

  • by Tastecicles ( 1153671 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:16AM (#39218117)

    Prestel was in use still until very recently (I can say with certainty within the last 8 years).

  • Re:Ready? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:28AM (#39218173)

    It probably failed where Minitel succeeded ...

    Minitel succeeded?

    In France ? Sure it succeeded considering that its been in use for 30 years, and only in june of this year will the service be taken permanently offline. And by in use I mean millions of people used it, not geeks but joe six pack.
    Your average mom and pop, grandma and granpa. Universities used it, business used it, large, medium and small businesses. Mintel was BIG, so BIG that many doubted that Internet could even succeed in France in the ninties and early 2000s. The system was closed and not exceedingly expensive but it worked. It was secure, it worked and tens of millions used it. If this is not a measure of success then I don't know what is.

  • Re:Ready? (Score:5, Informative)

    by ozmanjusri ( 601766 ) <> on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:28AM (#39218181) Journal
    From the Wiki article:

    "In February 2009, France Telecom indicates the Minitel network still has 10 million monthly connections, among which 1 million on the 3611 (directory). France Telecom is planning to retire the service on 30 June 2012."

  • Re:no pc (Score:4, Informative)

    by macshit ( 157376 ) <> 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 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Re:Ready? (Score:5, Informative)

    by flyingfsck ( 986395 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @05:25AM (#39218629)
    No, in the 1980s, desktop computers took about 1 second to boot up: Click, beep! and you are going. However, modems were horribly slow. France and a few other countries had Minitel terminals that worked remarkably well. The fact that it flopped in the US of A, doesn't mean it flopped everywhere.
  • Re:Ready? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Shazback ( 1842686 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @07:05AM (#39219003)
    Even if you consider the service a success, it was much more a political than technological or commercial success. The PTT (now France Telecom) was still a state-owned company when Minitel started, and in order to get the Minitel service kick-started, PTT was "ordered" to fit one in each post office in France for free. That didn't really get the ball rolling though, so the PTT was ordered to "give away" about 5M units for free to businesses and end users. Given that France's population was just north of 50M at the time, I'll let you consider what that means in terms of market penetration.

    At its "peak" in the second half of the 1990s, Minitel had around 9M end user terminals in operation, as well as those in post offices and businesses. The total revenues through the system were about $1B, of which three quarters were siphoned through to service providers and companies selling goods through Minitel. Effectively, for the PTT/France Telecom it was a $250M business, that enabled them to cut back slightly on print runs of phone directories.That sounds good, but when you consider they had to pony up the cost of 5-6M units before even starting to get revenues, that's a slight damper. With an average sales point of $150 (in 1983), even if you think they made a nice 30% mark-up, having to give away 5-6M units (+ installing them, + the network, +R&D...) comes out at over $600M. I don't know how much the PTT saved through not printing phone directories. But Minitel is not quite a clear success in the PTT/France Telecom's cap. It might have ended up turning a small profit over the lifetime of the service, and it definitely did enable new business models to be created (many, many, many of which were porn-related), however it was far too little with regards to the massive push PTT gave to get it started. The real success was a political one (with both sides of the spectrum fighting to take ownership of it) : politicians could say France was high-research, connected, yadda yadda, everybody was on the information superhighway, security, etc.
  • 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.

  • by weave ( 48069 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @07:28AM (#39219123) Journal

    It was called CompuServe, and IIRC was $3 per month.

    It was $5 PER HOUR off peak. Peak business hours were like $30/hour. And it was slow. It sometimes took 10 minutes just to start the CB radio chat program.

  • Re:Ready? (Score:4, Informative)

    by speculatrix ( 678524 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @07:29AM (#39219125)
    Teletext was an enormously successful service in the UK, any TV above the most very basic had it. the User interface simply consisted of choosing in a page number on the remote control. Pages were delivered over a data stream hidden in the non-visible parts of the picture, being sent in a cycle with some being sent more frequently such as index pages. Some TVs even incorporated extra memory so as to cache many pages to allow instant page navigation rather than wait sometimes 10+ seconds for one to arrive!

    It was used by many companies to carry up to date adverts, with special discounts on holidays being particularly successful, with many travel agents listing their deals and also using them in their retail outlets.

    Once the internet began to take off, it began to die. the company tried to transition to internet marketing but was too late: [] is now a spent force.
  • 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 Cederic ( 9623 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @08:36AM (#39219371) Journal

    Never subscribed to alt.folklore.computers. Even in '93 Usenet had too much content for one person to read it all. Who is this Dave Fischer bloke anyway?

  • by Amouth ( 879122 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:57AM (#39220665)

    SMS is 160 7bit characters.. which is only 140 bytes.

Radioactive cats have 18 half-lives.