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Memory Lane: Predicting the Internet, cable-style

Tue, 05/07/2013 - 8:37pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technology writer

Innovation is great, but in life and in cable, timing is everything.

If you’ve been around awhile, or are of “a certain age,” you may recall a few early attempts to couple cable’s distribution infrastructure with text and graphical information.

You know: stuff you might label today as “content.” Starting in the early 1980s, a parade of initiatives flew across cable’s radar, launched by some big names (then) in media and publishing, plus a few homespun start-ups.

Recalling them now feels like poring over a long-lost shoebox of baseball cards from your youth. There were INDAX from Cox Communications; Gateway from Times Mirror Co., then publisher of the Los Angeles Times; and Viewtron, arguably the most advanced entry, from the newspaper company Knight-Ridder.

Some cable-bred entrepreneurs tried similar ventures. An offshoot of the giant cable company Tele-Communications Inc. started Xpress Information Services, a cable-delivered aggregator – though nobody used that word at the time – of news headlines, stock quotes and weather forecasts. A Washington, D.C., company headed by the man rumored last month to be a candidate for the FCC chairmanship, Thomas Wheeler, offered up an electronic information service called, inexplicably, Nabu. At a 1984 cable industry convention in Canada, Wheeler urged the cable industry to embrace a new breed of consumer services that went beyond television programming. “Cable must move into the next generation of services that current technology can provide if the industry wants to see profits rise above current levels,” Wheeler told the group (thanks to the Ottawa Citizen and Google for helping to dredge that one up).

Generally, all of these services promised similar virtues. Using your computer – Xpress in particular seemed fond of the legendary TRS-80 as a demo device – you could tune into a broadcast content stream that allowed you to select content by topic. Remember that these services ran over the prevailing cable architecture, which was determinedly one way.

You couldn’t sling a command upstream into the network, so engineers had to devise workarounds that allowed some level of user control over what appeared on the screen.

These were crude precursors of today’s Internet-delivered information services, to be sure. But still, Despite their limitations and the attendant constraints of computing devices – anybody remember glowing green lines of type across a dark grey screen? – they had a peculiar appeal. During demonstrations of the Xpress service, stock quotes streamed across the screen, offering for many a first-ever “live” view of trading activity. Before, the first glimpse we had of IBM’s stock price came in the early a.m. editions of daily newspapers. Times Mirror loaded up its Gateway service with what seemed like a treasury of content – recipes, tips for dealing with home emergencies, weather forecasts in far-away places.

The early cable-delivered information services were breakthrough, albeit limited. And none of them worked economically.

Despite lots of lofty pronouncements about the future of information and the role these offerings would play delivering it, every one of the services mentioned here died.

And yet Tom Wheeler was right all along. The cable industry did invest in a new generation of information technology, and it did lift profits to record levels. Today, one U.S. cable company, Comcast, produces more than $9 billion in annual revenue from broadband data services, with operating profit margins that would have inspired a 1984-era cable industry executive to perform cartwheels in the office.

As often happens, the ambitious information-service initiatives launched by the cable industry and content partners in the 1980s were ahead of their time. Too many ingredients were missing. Personal computers weren’t in enough homes, and the user experiences they produced were poor. The absence of two-way networks limited functionality and interactivity. While good content was out there, by today’s standards it was limited. Beyond news and stock quotes of the day, there was relatively little to satisfy a hunger for information, at least compared to a world today where it’s possible to gather detailed information of arcane subjects with a few clicks. And importantly, the content that was available was of the authoritarian variety. It came pouring down from the high towers of corporate publishing. There was no invitation for users themselves to contribute to the conversation.

The list of inadequacies goes on.

Even so, these early developers were on to something. Cable did offer an able conduit for information delivery.

People really were interested in alternative kinds of content on alternative kinds of screens. And immediacy actually mattered. The lesson these early efforts taught was that innovation is vital, but as in life, it’s timing that’s everything.

stewart@stewartschley.com

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