This article about community videotex systems appeared in the February 1985 issue of Online Today, CompuServe's magazine for CIS subscribers. The main CompuServe connections were a forum for Wood Lake VA (see “Community videotex in suburbia,” below) and CIVIC, installed at COSI (“A CIVIC lesson”).
by John Edwards
Do you think videotex offers little more than a chat on CB, a quick scan of the latest news headlines, and a visit to your favorite online forum? Then consider the following:
• In Battle Creek, Mich., residents have access to a free, advertiser-supported information service that offers free access, at-home shopping and a variety of community-oriented information databases.
• In Wood Lake, Va., a new community is being planned around videotex. In addition to a backyard, garage and modern kitchen, home buyers also receive a Radio Shack Color Computer and modem, allowing users to tie into a community information network.
• In Columbus, Ohio, arts groups, cultural organizations, and human and social service agencies are using a citywide videotex system for low-cost 24-hour-a-day data processing services.
• A major northeastern state is planning a videotex system that will provide its residents with free up-to-date information on state departments and services. One day, it may even allow users to register their cars, apply for a hunting permit, or file a consumer complaint by computer.
What all of these projects share is the concept of a “wired community.” Localities nationwide are exploring the potential and power of community videotex systems. As a community videotex system user in Virginia comments, “It’s a modern day combination of the local newspaper and grocery store bulletin board, and its possibilities for the future are exciting.”
Before the end of this decade [1980s], in homes and apartments across the United States, computer terminals will be as commonplace as cable television, says futurist Alvin Toffler. According to Toffler’s much-acclaimed book, The Third Wave, computers and terminals will make it possible for millions of Americans to work and shop at home. A computerized nation, he tells us, will be able to conduct nearly all of its business at home, with substantial savings in commuting, overhead, energy and frazzled nerves.
But before this prediction can become reality, a way must be established to link America’s computer users into a network. To an extent, this problem has already been solved, thanks to such nationwide information services as CompuServe, The Source and Dow Jones News/Retrieval Service. But, according to most telecomputing experts, national videotex services supply only a partial solution. Before the promise of videotex can be completely fulfilled, local services must come online to provide computer owners with a selection of community-oriented services. Just as the three major television networks serve the requirements of a national audience while individual local stations cater to community needs, regional videotex systems must provide the local services interstate videotex systems are unable to supply.
Another expert who thinks such systems will come online within the very near future is Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a Washington-based videotex consulting company and newsletter publisher. “By the middle of 1987, at the latest, residents of each of the nation’s 25 largest cities will be able to access comprehensive community videotex systems,” says Arlen.
“Most of these systems will be operated by banks or newspapers, since these are the organizations best suited to offer local videotex services. Banks can offer users access to a variety of financial services while newspapers have the capability to generate and electronically publish news and other information. We also can expect to see cooperative ventures launched between these two institutions,” he says. “There’s a big change coming, and when it hits things are going to be very interesting.”
Most of us already have access to a type of community videotex in the form of local computer bulletin boards. These primarily non-profit systems, operated by community-spirited individuals, provide a host of services, including electronic messages, swap and shops, program databases and, in many instances, community news.
BBSes have been a home computing fixture since the late 1970s. The first such system went online on February 16, 1978, when two Chicago-area computer buffs, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, got the idea of linking people together by computer. Their system, which used home-brewed hardware and programs, was a literal overnight sensation, capturing the attention of both dedicated hackers and novice home computer users alike. Today, at least 1,500 BBSes exist nationwide. So many, in fact, that nobody knows just exactly how many are up and running on any particular day.
Neil Shapiro, author of the Small Computer Connection, a guidebook for BBS and information service users, compares BBSes to broadsides, the predecessors of today’s newspapers. Shapiro, who is also the forum administrator of CompuServe’s Micronet Apple Users’ Group says, “Published, for the most part, in people’s homes or in small printing shops, these leaflets carried every kind of thinking — from revolutionary maxims to religious canons — into the hands of the people.
“Today’s answer to the historical broadside is the computerized bulletin board service. Some are filled with messages of a purely personal nature, others carry much in the way of programming information, some are political — they are on the leading edge of the new information explosion. As such, they are interesting, both as phenomena and as a source of unique telecommunicating.”
But while local BBSes can be informative and fun, the limited resources of these operations prevent the addition of such sophisticated community-oriented features as at-home shopping and banking, bill-paying and extensive research facilities. And since most BBSes are operated off relatively low-cost personal computers, without any special add-on devices, they also are hampered by a limited storage capacity, unsophisticated software, and an inability to handle more than a single caller at any given time.
Conquering these problems requires lots of money, a commodity most BBS managers find in short supply. Therefore, building on the current base of BBS users, private industry is beginning to take the first steps toward constructing a nationwide network of community videotex systems.
Battle Creek, Mich., (1980 population, 35,724) is perhaps best known for its food products. Located in the state’s south central region, the city was settled in 1831 and incorporated in 1850. It gained prominence when W. K. Kellog and C. W. Post set up factories in the late 19th century for the manufacture of ready-to-eat cereals. With the addition of a Ralston Purina plant some years later, it became, and remains today, the world’s breakfast cereal capital.
But Battle Creek residents may be thinking more about electronic serial (as in RS-232C asynchronous interfaces) these days than the city’s traditional snap, crackle and pop products. For in this no-nonsense, blue-collar city, a unique experiment is unfolding that may set the pattern for community videotex systems across the country.
“Our goal is simple, to bring Battle Creek residents a top-notch, community-oriented videotex system,” says Don Bowles, president of Information Distributors Inc. His company has just launched a community videotex operation that brings users a variety of sophisticated services while retaining a unique degree of local flavor. Included on the system are a variety of communications applications (including multiple bulletin boards, electronic mail, conferencing and a suggestion box), online shopping, news from the Associated Press and 24-hour NOAA weather reports. Best of all, like a computer bulletin board, access is free, costing users nothing more than a local telephone call.
“We want to provide our users with the local services the national networks can’t provide,” Bowles says. “We use many local information providers and get most of our financial support from Battle Creek advertisers.”
The Battle Creek system is based on Scratch Pad, a software/hardware package sold by The Shuttle Corp. of Redmond, Wash. Using an ordinary IBM PC as the system’s base, Scratch Pad’s hardware consists of a plug-in central processor unit containing two 68000 chips, four synchronous/ asynchronous serial interfaces, and a QuadModem card that lets the PC handle up to four simultaneous callers.
Also provided is 1 megabyte of random-access memory, a 10-megabyte hard-disk drive, two TeleVideo terminals and a Mannesmann Tally MT180L dot-matrix printer. Scratch Pad’s software includes a controller program that handles text creation, accounting, system monitoring, operator permission control and remote data file uploading. An applications package includes automatic system start-up, log on, security code change, help file, limit log-on attempts and terminal interface features.
Michael Darland, Shuttle’s president, claims that videotex start-up prices are rapidly falling and are now within the range of small- to medium-sized businesses and larger companies that are looking to test the world of computer communication. He contests a recently published claim by an IBM official who put the start-up costs of a videotex system at between $500,000 and $1 million per year. “Horseback estimates like these create the impression that videotex is an arena for the billion-dollar giants, and that everyone should be prepared to pay dearly when the giants finally make videotex available to the marketplace.”
Marcia Ellis, a Shuttle spokesman, says her company is convinced Scratch Pad systems will soon be springing up around the country. “It’s just a matter of time before banks and other local businesses begin competing with each other in providing videotex services — it’s bound to happen. And I don’t think it’s a question of whether your town will have a community videotex system, but choosing which of the systems in your area you want to use regularly.”
At first glance, Wood Lake, Va., looks like any other suburban housing development. A drive through the town, which is located on the outskirts of Richmond, shows the usual signs of Yuppie affluence — neatly manicured lawns, earnest joggers and driveways dotted with Volvos, BMWs and an occasional Honda. By all accounts, it’s Anytown, USA.
But after going inside a few of the homes, you realize that something is quite extraordinary. For inside each of the community’s residences is a Radio Shack Color Computer and modem. Either Wood Lake’s residents are very devoted Tandy customers or something interesting is afoot.
According to Carol Thomas, a Wood Lake representative, the community’s residents like their Radio Shack computers, but they like what the units can do for them even more. Thomas claims the reason for including computers in every house sold lies in the development’s goal of providing buyers with an overall superior living environment. “These days,” she notes, “no home is complete without a computer and a way to obtain electronic information. We’ve come to that point.”
While Radio Shack sells the community its computers, CompuServe supplies the online services. What users receive when they activate their modems and dial into the Richmond CompuServe node is an online forum that’s specifically tailored to Wood Lake residents. The forum provides an automatic menu with emergency numbers, a neighborhood bulletin board and news of various community events. Users also have access to the rest of the CompuServe system, including news and information services, at-home shopping, electronic mail, special interest groups and the CB Simulator. Like the rest of us, Wood Lake users are billed for their online use.
“So far, the response has been overwhelmingly favorable,” says Thomas. “When we demonstrate the computer and its applications to potential buyers, many are unaware that such a system is even possible. Most are surprised at the low cost and fall in love with the concept on the spot. It’s a great selling tool.”
But Thomas is also careful not to place too much emphasis on the computer’s importance. “People find computers useful but not completely essential,” she says. “A computer is not a matter of life or death. You first buy a home to fit your various living requirements — its location, design, and proximity to schools and health care facilities are all more important than a computer. But later, after you’ve lived with a computer for a while, you realize how useful it can be. When you move, it is a good time to learn about computers. You’re in the mood to change your life, and you also have a great need to learn about your new environment,” she says.
While community videotex is most often aimed at individuals, the concept can also be applied to groups of people, such as clubs, charities, companies and public-service organizations.
For example, CompuServe markets Interchange, a private videotex system allowing individual businesses to organize, maintain and disseminate a wide spectrum of information. Interchange is currently being used by more than 100 firms, ranging from computer equipment manufacturers to fast-food outlets. The system is custom-tailored for each company, allowing firms to include the features they require. (For a detailed look at Interchange, see “Interchange: Changing How Companies Communicate,” page 14, Online Today, October 1984.)
For non-profit organizations, CompuServe, in cooperation with the Columbus Center of Science and Industry (COSI) and more than a dozen other companies, is sponsoring CIVIC (Columbus Information Via Computer), a low-cost data processing facility for social and human service agencies, arts groups and cultural organizations in Central Ohio. CIVIC provides computer resources and services through a central computer system housed at COSI headquarters.
CIVIC facilities consist of two Digital Equipment Corp. DECSYSTEM 2020 mainframe computers, seven DEC Rainbow personal computers, 20 DECmate I models and four DEC VT100s. The equipment, worth nearly a half-million dollars, was donated by Digital and CompuServe to CIVIC and enables users to have at their command far more data processing power than could be purchased by the groups individually. Users have the option of working either at CIVIC’s offices or at a remote site by using the service’s dial-up capability.
CIVIC offers a wide range of services that can be customized to fit each user’s individual needs. Currently, the system provides membership/client tracking, selective search capabilities, a mailing list/label generator, customized letter writing, fund raising support, contribution tracking and a community calendar. Future plans include a full-function funds accounting system (including general ledger, accounts receivable and accounts payable options) word processing capabilities, interactive spreadsheet analysis, and an electronic mail system that will allow CIVIC users to communicate via computer.
CIVIC uses a sliding price scale that charges users according to their database size and number of services used. Fees range from about $25 per month for smaller groups to over $500 monthly for larger organizations with extensive databases and sophisticated data processing requirements.
Dale Abrams, director of CIVIC, says “Our goal is to provide low-cost computer services to arts and human service organizations in Central Ohio. To our knowledge, no other community is supporting nonprofit organizations in this way. We feel that our success in sharing computer services will become a national model for other cities.”
Other CIVIC users agree with Abrams. Judi Stillwell, president of the Junior League of Columbus, says “CIVIC is one of the best things to come along in years. Voluntary organizations, by nature, live a hand-to-mouth existence. Anything that comes along to help us — like CIVIC — is going to be welcomed. I think it’s going to set a trend.” Representatives of other CIVIC members agree that the program is an excellent concept that should quickly spread nationwide.
CIVIC is managed by a policy board consisting of the representatives of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, The United Way, the Franklin County Mental Health Board, the Metropolitan Human Services Commission, the Columbus Junior League and the Center of Science and Industry. Three corporate members also sit on the board.
So far, the systems we’ve looked at have been limited in scope, serving, at most, only a few thousand people. But plans are in the works to expand the concept of community videotex to wider levels, serving tens of millions of people living in entire states and regions.
A pioneer in this field is the state of New York. Late last year, the state’s Urban Development Corp. announced its intention to provide government information and services through personal computers in homes and offices. Objectives of the UDC project, according to a corporation spokesman, will be to provide better delivery of state services to the public and to boost New York’s position as a videotex industry leader.
The system, which is as yet unnamed, will be constructed in three phases, In the first phase, a test stage, five state agencies will provide online information to 50 public-access terminals, 50 business computer users and 50 home computer users. In the project’s second phase, scheduled for later this year, 15 agencies will provide data while 40 more public terminals will be added and the number of business and home users doubled.
Based on the results of the first two phases, the UDC will design a fully operational system for all state residents. That system, some observers predict, will eventually provide users with a host of interactive services, including such applications as computerized car registrations, online driver training seminars and electronic mail services that citizens will be able to use to directly contact government agencies. The first version of this system is scheduled to be ready by early 1988.
David Simons, a member of the UDC’s high-technology council and the videotex system’s chief designer, thinks the project has an almost limitless potential. “This is the way of the future for state and local governments,” he says. “Government has an obligation to deliver to its citizens services in the most timely and convenient way possible. This system will do that. Videotex also provides us with the opportunity to provide information and services in a very cost-efficient manner.”
Simons also feels the project can offer a service privately-operated online systems cannot match. “Private videotex service companies are naturally interested in making a profit and have no interest in carrying the services this system will. After all, The Source and CompuServe are not going to carry a service on their national systems that’s only of interest to New Yorkers,” he says.
Another enthusiastic supporter of the project, and videotex in general, is New York Governor Mario Cuomo. “I’m proud that New York is the first state to initiate such a venture. I hope it will help our citizens feel more in-touch with their government, provide them with improved service, and establish New York as the videotex capital of America,” he says.
“Videotex has an exciting and unlimited future,” says Cuomo. “I think someday we’ll all ask how we could ever live without it.”
John Edwards is a contributing editor of Online Today. His User ID number is 70007,412.