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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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  • no pc (Score:4, Insightful)

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:35AM (#39217615)

    Its a youtube video.

  • 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.
  • 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 safetyinnumbers ( 1770570 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:44AM (#39217659)
    There was Minitel [] in France, and Prestel [] in the UK, that had some success.
  • Re:Why? It sucked. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:45AM (#39217671)

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

  • 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.

  • Re:Why? It sucked. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:48AM (#39217681)
    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.
  • 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.

  • Online services (Score:5, Insightful)

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Re:Ready? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ozmanjusri ( 601766 ) <> on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:56AM (#39218021) Journal
    It's an American imitation of the French Minitel network []

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

  • 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.


    (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.) []

    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: [])...

  • Re:Ready? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rgbatduke ( 1231380 ) <rgb@ph y . d u k> on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:45AM (#39218249) Homepage
    300 baud or 1200 baud. 2400 baud was a big deal when e.g. Hayes smartmodems came out capable of such awesome rates.

    Actual data terminal lines -- hot connections from a tty terminal like a VT-100 to your mainframe or mini computer -- might be as high as 9600 baud. IIRC RS-232 serial ports were limited (back in the early 80s) to 19200 in hardware, although later they sped up by another factor of 2 or 3 before serial became passe.

    At 300 baud (bps), tty porn -- playboy centerfolds rendered in ascii characters printed out on a line printer -- were painfully slow. At 1200 baud -- a whopping 150 characters per second -- one could redraw a text-only screen full of character data in a matter of -- ten or twelve seconds. At 4800 baud a screen refresh finally got to be peppy at a few seconds total, and 9600 up wasn't terrible for text data.

    Been there, lived through it all. 10+ Mbps out of my house anywhere in the world is basically full ethernet speed for 10-baseT or base 2 ethernet, the world's standard for a very long time. Of course my wireless speeds INSIDE my house are roughly 10x faster, and wirespeed is anywhere from 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps in most places that still have wired ports.

    Trust me, now is better.

  • 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.

  • Re:Ready? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Alan R Light ( 1277886 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @05:11AM (#39218555)

    Exactly. In 1983 computers were slow and awkward (might take 15 minutes to boot up, and required special skillz to operate), transmission rates were slow (I knew someone in 1981 who would use his 90 baud modem to check if he had email - but then would drive to the university where he worked to read the email if he had any - it was faster), and in many areas phone service was expensive and by the minute even for local calls. Add all these together and there simply wasn't enough demand at the time - such things were toys for the rich.

    Thanks to the rich people for paying the R&D for today's internet, however!

  • Re:Ready? (Score:5, Insightful)

    Sounds like an interactive teletext system, which is impressive in itself for something made in 1982.

    The most interesting aspect of the system was that terminals were given out for free to end users. The French clearly understand the principle that new technologies succeed or fail on their penetration rate, and decided to simply skip over the possibility of the usual market failures.

  • 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 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.

  • Re:Ready? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jonadab ( 583620 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @10:52AM (#39220091) Homepage Journal

    > 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 exception of email -- and email only sells the internet to people whose relatives already have it). The big selling point is the ability to look up any information you should ever happen to need or want. That's the thing people who don't have the internet yet know about and want. That's the thing the internet had that the big national BBSes (Compuserve, AOL, etc.) lacked, which is why they were subsumed and/or obviated. You can look up *anything*.

    People (usually) don't start wanting to shop and bank online until they've already been online long enough to be comfortable.

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