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88 22 YEARS AGO
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW /
The Web is lled with immersive
virtual geographies (see "Second
Earth," p. 38). Eventually, they
could merge into what s been called
the "Metaverse," a 3-D virtual world in
which real economies, social networks,
and educational resources ourish.
Homes wired for data services
were easy to predict 22 years ago; the
interactivity of network users was not.
In October 1985, Technology Review
published "The Inevitable March of
Videotex," in which Ralph Lowenstein,
then dean of the University of Florida
College of Journalism and Communi-
cations, and Helen Aller, then director
of the college s Electronic Text Cen-
ter, described a recent technology: for
an initial payment and monthly fees,
subscribers received a "decoder" that
translated data into a for mat read-
able on their TVs and a terminal that
let them retrieve information from a
central computer. The success of such
"videotex" systems in Europe, where
services were state sponsored, had
impressed U.S. media conglomerates.
In the early 1980s, the service seemed
poised to nd a place in U.S. homes.
By 1985, a few U.S. companies
had lost millions on videotex. Two
notable letdowns were Keyfax, a
joint venture of the Chicago Sun-
Times, Honeywell, and the telecom-
munications company Centel that
found a few hundred subscribers in
Chicago, and Viewtron, a Knight-
Ridder--AT&T project delivered to
fewer than 3,000 in Florida. For pro-
spective customers, the combined
cost of equipment, phone usage, and
the service itself proved prohibitive.
Knight-Ridder did, however, nd
some success when it began o ering
videotex for personal computers.
Whereas the Internet was
designed to be decentralized and by
the mid-1980s was operated by a host
of entities, videotex relied on commu-
nication with a single media service:
users had no choice of content beyond
that o ered by their service providers.
Yet the vision spelled out for video-
tex is oddly familiar. Lowenstein and
Aller argued that the two-way trans-
mission of text and graphics would
hollow out traditional news media
and facilitate the exchange of infor-
mation, goods, and services.
Screens feature many colors, and
the content includes news from sev-
eral wire services, auctions of prod-
ucts ranging from golf balls to yachts,
lessons in Spanish and Scholastic Ap-
titude Tests, weather bulletins, stock-
market quotations, home banking
ser vices, airline schedules, and hun-
dreds of special subjects. But the move
to personal computers may limit the
technology s expansion. For while al-
most everyone owns at least one color
television set, only about 18 percent of
American homes have personal com-
puters---and most of those computers
are not equipped with the modems nec-
essary to receive videotex ser vices. ...
What will the videotex era be
like? Just imagine the advantages of
having immediate access to books,
magazines, major newspapers, and
reference works from any library or
publishing house in the world. Chil-
dren will be able to retrieve a few
pages from a continually updated
encyclopedia, with their parents pay-
ing royalty costs only on those pages
selected. It will be possible to read---
and pay for---just the first 10 pages of
a sorry novel; the author might still
come out ahead, because thousands
more people might want to "test-read"
the novel than would buy the printed
version. Videotex subscribers will also
be able to buy stocks, send messages
home, make plane reser vations, and
receive simple medical diagnoses. ...
The advantage of a system that can
bring a world of knowledge into every
home or business puts the apparent
disadvantages into a shadow. A truly
free society---as opposed to an authori-
tarian one---depends on the availability
to the average citizen of a wide variety
of news and political information.
This will be the case in the videotex era
Before the Internet, there was videotex.
By Michael Patrick Gibson
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Videotex services presaged what would
come later with the Internet.
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