Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 9, NO. 5 / MAY 1983 / PAGE 123

A user's view of Prestel. (evaluation) Eric Somers.

A User's View Of Prestel

Prestel is viewdata. The British based electronic information utility now known as Prestel was originally named Viewdata (with a capital V). But viewdata quickly became a generic term used to refer to any interactive videotex service, and the premier viewdata service was renamed Prestel.

Prestel is run by the British post office, known as British Telecom, which also runs the telephone system in the U.K. Over 900 organizations contribute information to the 230,000-page Prestel database. Subscribing to Prestel is like taking 900 magazines and getting a high speed international mail service thrown in for good measure.

I even sent an electronic greeting card to Prince Charles and Princess Diana congratulating them on the birth of their son. I received a reply, too. Through several newsletters published on Prestel I keep track of new developments in the videotex industry. Since I am planning a trip to Australia, I used the Prestel advertiser reply service to request travel brochures. The Australian Tourist Commission sent me a packet an inch thick. There is such a wide range of information on Prestel, you might find it hard to think of a topic about which some information provider has not put up pages. Looking for a ferret? You can find information about these unusual pets on Prestel.

I have been a Prestel subscriber for over six months now, but I am still surprised at the volume and variety of information available. That's the excitement. Nearly every time I sign on, I discover a gem of information I did not expect. And some of the information would be hard to obtain elsewhere.

Although many computer users in the U.S. are familiar with electronic information utilities like The Source and Compuserve, Prestel differs markedly from these services in display format, indexing structure, and database content.

Standardized Page Display

All information on Prestel is designed to be read in pages, or screens, consisting of 24 lines of 40 characters. Both upper-and lowercase alphanumeric characters are supported, as well as two special graphics sets of 64 characters each. All characters can be displayed in any one of seven colors against any one of seven background colors, and can also be displayed in double height or flashing mode.

To use Prestel, you must purchase a special terminal that supports the display protocols, or buy hardware or software products to adapt a personal computer to Prestel. Currently, the Apple II and TRS-80 Model III can be adapted for black and white display simply by running special software. Combination software/hardware packages exist for color adaptation of Apple II, IBM, and S-100 bus personal computers.

Use of a standard display means that there are never awkward line wraparound problems, and important information never scrolls off the top of the screen. All information on Prestel is transmitted as one or more complete pages that are written on the screen from top to bottom.

Although color may not seem important for textual information, many Prestel information providers make excellent use of contrasting colors for emphasis or to lead the eye. And the combination of color, lowercase characters, interesting page lavouts, and graphics makes Prestel a true communications medium, not simply a database.

As a former advertising agency creative director, I may be especially sensitive to the visual design capabilities of Prestel, but when I give demonstrations of both The Source and Prestel to my university classes, the students overwhelmingly favor the visually more exciting Prestel display. To a generation brought up on mass media and video games, it is not enough that computers provide information, the method of presentation must be as design oriented as a new arcade fad, a slick publication, or a pair of bluejeans.

Menu Driven Access Structure

The model for Prestel information retrieval is print. It is a library of regularly updated periodical information. Indexes are used to find specific information. By keying numbers next to index entries, you can quickly move through more and more specific index layers to the information you seek. Numerical labeling of menu choices allows Prestel to be accessed with a simple numeric keypad. This speeds up menu selection and allows one to sit back in an easy chair with a keypad smaller than most TV remote controls.

If menus seem like a slow way to retrieve information, remember that Prestel is designed to be received at 1200 bits per second (bps) and that an extremely efficient operating system assures a consistent response time of less than two seconds from the time a key is pressed until the page begins to appear. The response is so instantaneous that some people who have used my terminal can hardly believe they are online to a computer in the U.K.

Since all Prestel pages are numbered, once you have used an index to locate specific information, you can repeatedly go back to selected pages with a direct call to the individual page numbers. This ability to jump from any part of the Prestel database to any other part in less than two seconds is an invaluable time saver. Though competitors sometimes criticize Prestel for a lack of keyword search capability (a time-consuming disk-intensive feature), using indexed and numbered pages is far more natural and convenient for most people.

The most general indexes on Prestel are alphabetic indexes by subject matter and by name of information provider. To locate gold prices using the subject index, for example, you first call up a page that simply lists all of the letters in the alphabet. Then you key the number next to the letter G. The next screen displays subsets of character strings starting with G (e.g., Gab-Gam, Gar-Ger, etc.). Keying the number adjacent to Go produces a new menu page showing a series of words starting with Go . . . Keying the number for Gold accesses a menu listing all of the information providers presenting information about gold. Another keystroke takes you directly to the commodity quotation pages.

Although this process usually takes a little over a minute, the number of menu layers can be cut almost in half by using the more specialized Business Information Index to find gold prices. An even more direct Commodities Index can shorten the search time to under 30 seconds. And Prestel has 17 specialist indexes covering such diverse categories as agriculture, auto industry, medicine, microcomputing, shipping, travel industry, and viewdata industry. Since each electronic "publication' on Prestel has its own mini-index of current stories or data; once you have located these individual publications you can go directly to those pages without having to use any of the general indexes.

Up through January 1982, an extensive printed directory of the Prestel database was available on a quarterly basis from the Financial Times (London). They recently discontinued this service, but there are indications from Logica, the U.S. sales representatives for Prestel, that another such publication may soon become available.

The paged structure of Prestel points up its primary mission to be a mass information medium rather than a computer timesharing utility. Prestel is not designed for word processing, managing home finances, or calculating mortgage payments. Some of the information providers have skillfully indexed their material to simulate a timesharing utility. For example, there is a multiple-choice quiz you can take to find out what kind of dog would be the best per for you. At the end you are presented with a list of suitable breeds. The list may appear to have been computer prepared on the basis of a real time analysis of your answers. In fact, each question with its numbered answers is simply a menu that helps guide you to one of a series of prepared "answer' sheets.

Some time-share utilities will become available on Prestel as information providers gradually make use of newly developed gateway software that allows information stored in computers outside the Prestel network to be formatted, in real time, for Prestel display. This will permit bank-at-home services (now being tested) and other utilities requiring processing beyond ordinary page retrieval.

Prestel supports no bulletin boards or user-entered classified ads. This may be perceived as a defect by some, but it does keep the service from being cluttered with the kind of trivia that has characterized some U.S. electronic bulletin boards. Prestel users can order products using special response pages with multiple choice selection of items to permit ordering with a numeric-only keypad. Users with full alphanumeric keyboards can also send electronic mail to other Prestel subscribers. Since Prestel is currently being accessed in 25 countries, this benefit should not be underrated.

A Publisher's Clearinghouse

An information service is to better than the information it provides. The ultimate benefit of Prestel is its range and quantity of information. This is the result of a two-tiered information provider (IP) structure that makes it attractive for publishers both large and small to use Prestel. Major publishing organizations --either electronic publishing entrepreneurs or traditional publishers seeking new channels--can become full-fledged IPs by paying a yearly $10,000 membership fee and agreeing to rent at least 100 pages. But many of these larger providers broker their pages in smaller lots to Sub-IPs who may only put up a dozen or so pages.

As of this writing there are 169 major IPs and 801 Sub-IPs--a total of 970 publishing organizations in all. When you consider that each of the 970 databases consists of information designed specifically for videotex display using color and graphics, the uniqueness of Prestel becomes apparent.

U.S. computer information utilities (The Source, Compuserve, and Dow Jones) lack the range of publishers and topics, not to mention the display capabilities, of Prestel. Competing viewdata systems having even greater graphics capability--Canada's Telidon and France's Antiope, for example-- have yet to put up any kind of substantial database, much less offer their services in the U.S. Lest the Prestel user fear the low-resolution character graphics of Prestel are too limiting for sophisticated "office of the future' applications, it should be noted that Prestel plans to offer a series of tiered graphics enhancements in the future, including full photographic image transmission.

Priced for Business

My enthusiasm for the Prestel service is tempered by one grim reality: the cost. Prestel is being marketed as a business information service. It was not always so. When Prestel was field tested in the U.K. (starting in 1977), it was intended to be an electronic newspaper for the masses. The 24 X 40 display was selected because it was the maximum resolution that could be displayed on a home TV receiver using a modulated RF output from the terminal. But when Prestel was offered to the British public, at a price much lower than that now charged in the U.S., most citizens still deemed it too expensive to replace (or augment) the family newspaper.

Although one can still find some games and recreational information on Prestel, 87 percent of the present Prestel users are businesses. All U.S. marketing efforts, which began in January 1982, have positioned the service as a business utility carrying a business price tag.

There are three types of charges on Prestel. The first is a $50 per month membership fee. This is not a minimum use charge, but a flat fee added to all time and page charges. Second, there is a charge for connect time: 30 cents a minute if you don't use Telenet (you must call a Boston area number) or 45 cents a minute if you access Prestel through Telenet. This rate applies any time of day or night, 300 or 1200 bps. Still a third charge is the frame charge. Some information providers charge you to read their pages. If you access these pages from a menu page, you will be told the charges before you call up a page. These charges can run from 1/2p. to 50p. per page British currency (about one cent to one dollar, U.S.). The average charge is usually in the 5p. to 10p. (10-20 cent) range. The vast majority of pages on Prestel are free, however, and in my own experience I find that frame charges are a negligible part of my otherwise substantial quarterly bill.

Prestel Terminals

Prestel can be accessed in the U.S. using any one of three data modem standards: Bell 212 (or equivalent), Bell 103, and CCITT V.23.

The Bell 212 standard is the most common U.S. 1200 bps standard, but modems for it are expensive. Also, most systems for adapting Prestel to personal computers at 1200 bps require hardware additions (beside the modem), and are therefore quite expensive.

Currently, the Apple II, IBM Personal Computer, and most S-100 bus computers can be adapted to access Prestel with a 212 modem. Stand-alone terminals from Zenith, Bishopsgate, Sony and Wolfdata are also available in the U.S. for connection to modems using this full duplex 1200 bps standard. Bell 212 users can reach Prestel directly via a Boston area concentrator, or via Telenet.

Bell 103 service, the widely used 300 bps standard, is available for Prestel via Telenet only. Software programs that make the Apple II (with D.C. Hayes Micromodem) and Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III a Prestel terminal use this standard. Though I find 300 bps a tedious data rate, the low cost of these programs, $85 and $50 respectively, may make them attractive for some users.

In Europe, Prestel communication uses the CCITT V.23 format, an asymmetrical system in which the pages are transmitted to the user at 1200 bps, but typed responses from the user are received at only 75 bps (still a fast typing speed). This standard is available for Prestel in the U.S. by direct dialing the U.S. data concentrator ports. Telenet does not currently support V.23 modems.

Although I began using Prestel with the Appletel software for my Apple II, I quickly switched to a very low cost terminal from Radofin Electronics. This remarkable device includes a built-in V.23 modem and memory autodialing. It produces a modulated RF video output, so it can be connected to any color TV set.

The color saturation and character sharpness are superior to that produced by any other video RF system I have seen. All color photographs of Prestel screens accompanying this article were made using the Radofin connected to a Sony TV set.

The Radofin terminal has a cassette port for permanent storage of pages. Options include a low cost printer and an alphanumeric keyboard. The list price of the basic Radofin (without options) is around $500 (the firm seems indefinite about exact single unit pricing). It is rumored that another low cost Prestel adapter (terminal plus internal V.23 modem) may soon be available in the U.S. and carry a $200-$300 price tag. This competition may ultimately bring down the cost of the Radofin.

Here Today

Most industry analysts agree that neither Prestel, nor any other viewdata service, is about to take the world by storm in the immediate future. But many new communications technologies have had to endure a slow acceptance before realizing sudden growth. Cable television, FM radio, and color television come to mind. All took over a decade, in some cases over two decades, to become popular. Although an impressive service, Prestel is not yet the comprehensive office-of-the-future information/ communication system envisioned by futurists. By future standards, I am sure it will appear crude, just as early telephone service seems crude compared to today's multi-function phone systems.

But Prestel is the most comprehensive videotex information service presently available in the United States (or anywhere else). Its display standards can be implemented at low cost and are probably satisfactory for many business applications. The recent announcement by IBM of their own videotex system supporting a Prestel compatible display format may well mean that we will soon see many other Prestel-like services coming on the scene. A de facto standard based on Prestel may emerge before AT&T manages to develop a service based on its much publicized, and expensive to implement, presentation level protocols. And since Prestel already has the lead in quality of service and range of information available from any electronic publishing service, it just might be that with continued research and development supported by the British government, the enhanced information system of the future might also be called Prestel.

Photo: Prestel welcome page.

Photo: Prestel main index page.

Photo: Typical page of textual information.

Photo: Picture utilizing Prestel's low resolution graphics capability.

Photo: "Superstat' page showing current level of utilization. As of June 30, 1982 Prestel had 17,743 subscriber terminals in use. Page also shows number of IPs and Sub-IPs, total number of pages in use, and a McDonald's hamburger total of individual page accesses since beginning of service.

Photo: Graph showing number of new subscribers each month over past year and a half. Growth has been slow, but steady, with an average 500 new subscriptions each month.

Photo: Graph showing growth of total subscription since beginning of regular Prestel service following two years of field tests.

Photo: Example of Prestel response page, in this case used by Holiday Inn for taking reservations.

Photo: Advertising pages often utilize color and graphics. Ford Escort graphic shows use of separated graphics font in which each element within each graphic character is isolated and surrounded by the background color.

Products: British Telecom Prestel (information retrieval system)