Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Before the World Wide Web really got rolling there was the hard work of developing the content of the new medium. Pioneering content is not always profitable.

The original menu of the TVOntario Telidon Project.

A sample of Telidon graphics on a standard NTSC television.

The Information Age: The timing of innovation and the introduction of ancillary technologies really make it possible for a new medium to develop. Here is an account of such a time ten years before the World Wide Web was launched. 

 by Tom Thorne

In 1982 the concepts for the World Wide Web was still only in the heads of a few people such as Tim Berners-Lee. The idea was current in very limited academic and military circles. Those in the know thought it might become a networked system for general use about ten years in the future. That time line turned out to be relatively correct when the web took off in the middle 1990's.

During the 1980's I began to work on Telidon systems which had started out in the fertile labs of the Canadian Federal Department of Communications (DOC). The DOC labs were involved in the science of how digital information could be transported over television signals and telephone lines. 

What made the DOC work really interesting was they saw this effort not as a text based system, such as the work of the BBC in Britain and other experiments like Antiope in France, but as a series of graphic primitives combined with text. In effect they pioneered the way web graphics and text are largely done today but at the lower resolution of NTSC North American television standards.

This clever notion suggested that a new digital graphic and text medium would be born. Combined with the first web work mentioned earlier, this idea was very promising. In 1981 I had visited Britain in my capacity as Director of Information for TVOntario to look at their alpha mosaic (text based graphics) service they had put up in prototype. They had two systems, one on line by telephone and Ceefax which stored its digital content in the blanking interval of a television picture.

I liked both BBC services when I saw them and immediately thought of the Telidon work going on in Ottawa as a natural extension using more sophisticated graphics and text than the British systems. The Canadian system was technically more advanced than the BBC. However the British had already produced content on line and across their broadcasting network which gave them a leading editorial application edge.

It was at this moment that TVOntario got involved in a Telidon project which would insert our networked television blanking interval with about 100 pages of information. Simultaneously we decided to  create an online telephone content with a trial called VISTA sponsored by Bell Canada. Soon we were joined by a CBC project and the digital media world was born. 

We worked very hard on our services producing pages of content for both of these new services. The promise of the television blanking interval system was having student or teacher notes to accompany an educational program imbedded in the broadcast. A Telidon box attached to the TV could bring them up on the screen. Much of our TVOntario work focused on these kinds of application along with weather and our broadcast schedule.

The VISTA trial with Bell took us into the world of telephone dial up digital services. The big problem of these systems was the slowness, even at 1500 baud, of our pictures. We knew very early that something had to give on the speed front if these services online were to be commercially viable. 

We saw the future one day at the DOC labs. It was fibre optic phone or cable TV lines. In all technologies there are promising starts but the online world as we know it now can only be achieved if line speeds are fast and fibre optics was the answer. 

Fibre optics was an infrastructure logistics problem that took Canadian telcos and cable companies the next decade to install. Only then could the web be available with any kind of viable wait times.

After I had worked on the TVOntario Telidon Project I was approached by some people who wanted to use Telidon for commercial applications. Their plan was to provide a stock market charting service using this technology. It meant that they could get some help from the Federal Department of Communications for equipment. They had also had a bite from Statistics Canada who also wanted to provide their information in chart form.

I joined this group in 1982  and we named the company Faxtel Information Systems Ltd.
We began to write the software for a Telidon-based charting and graphing service and it went very well due to some former Bell Labs people and some excellent free lance software experts in the VAX-VMS operating systems.

The stock market charts we produced were revolutionary. Technical analysis experts were literally blown away that we could instantly chart all major stock market historical data right up to the day's closing numbers. Not only that, we could put other useful statistical lines through the charts that indicated trends for technical analysts.

Before our system, which we dubbed Marketfax, technical analysis was done by hand. One service that felt threatened by our new service put out a weekly booklet of charts for the market. They worried that their business was now passé. By computerizing their business we had made their weekly chart book a dodo. We thought their expertise in interpreting charted market data was invaluable and we offered them a terminal and an association with us. They refused.

We very soon had terminals in six Toronto brokerages and in several sites in New York. We also pioneered the use of the first  1984 Apple Macintosh computer as an intelligent terminal for Marketfax. This was a radical step because we wrote software to make this happen that meant that Apple personal computers could access our services on line. It was the first  service specific App.

However our market was limited to those brokers who did technical analysis of the the stock markets. Not every brokerage had such a person on staff and so our excellent product had a limited market.  Technical analysts were very keen to have one of terminals and high rollers paid for it themselves rather than wait for their firms to provide it.

Marketfax was a MiniVAX head end software package that drew raw data from stock market databases on mainframe computers and massaged it into usable dynamic graphic charts. The important change in this service was the user defined aspect. Customers chose what charts they wanted and how to display them for decisions. That is what dynamic means.  

We drew the raw data from mainframe storage companies for one cent and sold it for six cents. Marketfax was the first service of its kind and it is now commonplace within the investment community. After the first year the raw data providers wanted more money for their data because our service added value.

A bright spot for our fledging firm was a contract we got from Statistics Canada to chart their data. This was a great help to keep our  business afloat. Although our systems were excellent we had the usual start up problems of limited capital and a tight technical analysis marketplace. Several offers came from stock market firms to buy us out but no real interest in long term development of our firm Faxtel.

About this time I began to plan a post Marketfax set of  services for Faxtel to develop. One major service I saw was Economic Development for municipalities. Our charting expertise would be applicable in this project  and we could sell to companies that were looking to locate a factory.  

The information on this service would be drawn from statistical data like the sources we used for the stock market. In addition we would provide editorial material about each community. This service would be online and would first cover Ontario and then the rest of Canada. It could be cloned for any jurisdiction once it was running. However this project ran afoul of governments who held this data and didn’t want to release it to a private company.

All of these services are available today. The point is that all services and technologies have their time and space when they are commercially viable or come into a time when it is obvious to produce a service. 

The World Wide Web provided the opportunity to develop a new medium and that has happened. At the beginning most of the websites were purely informational. Very few interacted with the customer to the level of Marketfax. Even fewer websites were transactional and could take an order.

My early work in an interactive service was instrumental in what came in the next decade and my work before that with TVOntario always makes me think that in a certain space and time innovation sometimes has a long way to go before it is viable. I left Faxtel in 1984 and came to a college to teach digital marketing. Over the past 30 years all marketing has become digitally based.

A useful book about the early World Wide Web:
Weaving the Web The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor, Tim Berners-Lee with Mark Fischetti, Harper Collins Publishers, San Francisco, 1999, ISBN 0-06-251586. Paperback: ISBN 0-06-251587X

A web site about early Telidon projects:

© Copyright 2014, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved.

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