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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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  • PC's (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @01:38AM (#39217633)

    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 people/businesses who don't reside in the same town you do. People have used phones to get things done, coordinate with people, call their banks, etc. People only associate TVs with sitting back and watching. Back then the internet wasn't fast enough to do this, so people weren't interested with connected TVs (and apparently 50% of people with internet capable TVs still aren't interested in connected TVs).

  • 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.

  • Pictures (Score:4, Interesting)

    by michaelmalak ( 91262 ) <> 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.

  • Re:No Porn! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hcs_$reboot ( 1536101 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:11AM (#39217807)
    And the French Minitel [] launched in 1982 had porn. It's all about competition.
  • and Ohio had QUBE (Score:2, Interesting)

    by YesIAmAScript ( 886271 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @02:49AM (#39217991)

    And there were others too.

    Why did they fail? It's easy.

    Content is king. There just wasn't nearly enough content to access on these servers.

    Beginning and end of story.

  • 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 It was that critical mass and diversity of people connected together that provided the vitality for the internet to hit the big time.
  • 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 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. []

    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. []

  • 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 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.


  • by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @08:07AM (#39219263) Homepage Journal
    You have a four-digit UID and you don't know what the September that never ended [] is?
  • Re:Ready? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Skater ( 41976 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @08:26AM (#39219335) Homepage Journal
    Nor did my PCjr or the PC XT machine we had, even when booting from floppy and having to enter the date (remember, "only XT users know that January 1, 1980 was a Tuesday"), especially since we usually didn't bother entering the date and time. The 15 minutes thing didn't start until Windows made it happen, but I can't remember if 3.1 or 95 was worse...they were both pretty bad unless you had a top of the line machine.
  • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @08:57AM (#39219437)

    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 !!!

  • Re:MS-DOS in ROM (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mlts ( 1038732 ) * on Friday March 02, 2012 @10:37AM (#39220001)

    More advanced versions of this had not just the usual stuff in ROM, but a full complement of utilities.

    It boggles me why computers are light-years ahead of the 8086/8088 models of yore, but still can't stick a workable OS in ROM for recovery purposes. It doesn't have to be a full version of Windows or a complete Linux distro, but something good enough to run fsck or chkdsk, a partition editor, be able to mount/decrypt LUKS/BitLocker for recovery, and run an antivirus utility or integrity checker to search for tenacious rootkids on an offline volume. With the fact that SSDs are becoming cheaper (although not as cheap as how hard disk capacities skyrocketed and prices plummeted), it would be nice if motherboard makers would have an OS in ROM that not just can be used for recovery tasks, but in a pinch, basic productivity (word processing, Web browsing, ssh/VNC/Citrix client, etc.)

    Heck, even my Android phone has the ability to run a fairly limited Linux distro (Webtop). Why can't this be a part of motherboards?

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?