AT&T Tech Channel

About this video

The Viewdata Corporation, a company formed by joint arrangement between AT&T and Knight-Ridder, launched the Viewtron system commercially in 1983. Viewtron was a videotex-based information service delivered over phone lines into homes. Initially, in 1980 and 1981, it had only 200 users: a test market. By 1984? 2,700 subscribers. Two and a half years later, the service had expanded to around 15 cities up and down the east coast, and 15,000 users. Viewtron even had developed software that would allow IBM, Commodore and Apple computer users (who also had modems) to access the system. The Sceptre system that allowed for TV access had the same microprocessor as a contemporaneous personal computer.

This film is about Viewdata, and about the particulars of the Viewtron system. Viewdata's executives, even during the company's existence, also were pragmatically aware of its shortcomings. Though they wanted it to be "The McDonald's of videotex" (quote from a Viewdata spokesman), the costs involved in the system made it difficult to price the service for the mass market, and customers weren't ready for features like online shopping.

At the height of its success, Viewtron gave customers access to over 15,000 full-color "frames" (we would call them pages) of data, and there were plans to expand this to 100,000 in a short period of time. The information was located in room-sized, centralized computers, but each city/market had only localized data — i.e. were isolated islands of info, rather than a whole, linked network. The entire system leaned on a broadcasting framework, rather than a system that was contributed to and built by users: community features were what allowed USENET to flourish around this same time, and would lead to moderate success for services like CompuServe and Prodigy in the near future.

Footage courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ

Release date: 02/29/2012

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