Minitel - the resistible rise of French videotex

Ewan Sutherland

Inventing Videotex

The original idea for videotex was British. Researchers at the Post Office (later British Telecom) Martlesham Research Centre announced what they called 'Viewdata' in 1973. This had grown out of work on menu-driven systems by Sam Fedida, some of which dated back to the 1960s. Viewdata was later given the generic name videotex, while the service was marketed in the UK as Prestel. The early historical developments and the hopes for the future have been described by Fedida and Malik [1979].

In videotex, a screen and keyboard are connected via a 'black box' of electronics to a telephone line. The need to transmit digital data over an analogue line usually restricts data transmission rates to 1200 bits per second coming from the database and only 75 bps going from the consumer back to the server. It allows a user to have access to databases containing 'pages' of information represented on the screen in text and crude graphics. At the time, these speeds were adequate and close to the limits of what could be achieved.

The vision of the inventors of videotex was that by combining telephone lines and television sets an enormous market could easily be created. The penetration levels of both systems were so high that a vast number of homes were already equipped with both and all that had to be done was to link the two together. The resulting system would provide access to massive quantities of information for large numbers of people. It was seen not only as being good for the UK, but to have considerable export potential. For commercial, political and technical reasons these views were to be disabused.

The idea of the Prestel service was enthusiastically received both by the senior management of the Post Office and by the UK Government. In encouraging the development and adoption of Prestel, the main objectives were:

The UK Government under Labour (1974-1979) was in favour of intervention to support the use of information technology as, initially, was the Conservative Government which succeeded it. In particular, Kenneth Baker, the Minister for Information Technology (1981-1984) drummed up support for the use of IT, through activities such as IT'82, the year of information technology.

Videotex was to be taken up in other countries for similar reasons. It was to be perceived very much as a national pursuit.

[ Introduction | Invention | Marketing | French telecommunications | France Télécom | French videotex | Messagerie Conviviale | Unnatural market | Cour des Comptes | Quickening pace of technology and politics | Conclusion | Bibliography | Chronology | Web links ]

Copyright © Ewan Sutherland, 1995.

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