Ambitious videotex goals require industry cooperation.
The Videotex Industry Association (VIA) has a plan for getting from the present to its desired future. Approximately one million people in the US are now consumers of easy-to-use interactive electronic services. In the future, if all goes according to plan, use of these services will be commonplace.
* 1988 is the year of gateways, in which industry members are coming to agreement on the parameters of these two-way entry points through which users will be able to gain access to a wide array of services, and service providers to large user markets.
* 1989 will be the year of services, in which major efforts will be made to interest current and potential providers of information and other consumer-oriented services to gear up for the consumer market.
* And 1990 will be the year of the mass market, when, instead of having a conference for the industry, the VIA will be able for the first time to mount a show for consumers--a sure sign that the industry will have "arrived."
All this leads up to the VIA's goal for the turn of the century. If gateways proliferate, services emerge, and consumers show interest, the industry group hopes that 97 percent of the North American population will have access to videotex services, and 50 percent will be using them at least on an occasional basis.
These organizational and market goals were articulated at the VIA's recent "Gateway 2000" conference held in Washington, D.C.--and each one of them is a large order. The Association has dedicated itself to making them happen.
Altogether, about 500 people participated in this year's event, 300 of them attending the program discussions and the rest exhibitors and expo walk-ins. A show of hands indiciated that about half were new to videotex, a healthy sign of emerging interest in the field, according to Bob Smith, VIA Executive Director. Between a fifth and a third of the attendees were from Bell companies, who used the meeting as a way of educating people in their regional as well as local operating companies on videotex.
Phenomenal progress has already been made getting support for basic industry goals. In her closing remarks at the conference. Hilary Thomas, the VIA's current chairman and President of Minitel USA, a newly formed company marketing French videotex expertise in the US, noted that it was only last year that the small association was wondering if it dare contemplate influencing the policy arena. The VIA has 90 corporate memberships.
Thomas explained that the videotex industry had adopted a rather risky strategy--that of focusing on the development of services for the mass market. This focus differentiates videotex industry efforts from those of others developing online services for more specialized markets.
Industry efforts have already been successful in convincing policy makers, including Judge Greene, that mass market videotex is a desirable national goal for the US. A critical step is building the mass market infrastructure, Thomas stated.
The next step, undertaken even before the Greene decision, was fostering a common approach to the development of gateways to mass market information services. The gateway concept is viewed as a way to reduce current barriers to mass market acceptance.
The VIA's vehicle was the "Gateway Study," a half-year participatory process that set forth the vision of the consumer marketplace in the year 2000 and culminated in the development of guidelines for "functional business characteristics" of information gateways.
Over 100 people from 25 sponsoring companies participated in the study spending two to three days a month in intensive brainstorming and review meetings. The sposors included all seven regional Bell companies and Bell Canada; service providers like Apple Computer, Chase Manhattan Bank, Covidea, Quantum Computer Services, US Videotel and X-Press Information Services; research centers; and hardware and software suppliers. Notably absent from the sponsor lists were IBM (joint venture partner of Prodigy), CompuServe, General Electric (parent of Genie), Dow Jones and The Source.
A 64-page draft report was released to conference attendees for their review and comment. The study was the focus of about half the conference sessions. Plenary sessions covered the main points in the report, and "gateway track" sessions, led by panels of study participants, got into the finer points of such subjects as user interface, connecting diverse protocols and applications, and managing administrative functions such as billing. Several general sessions were devoted simply to getting feedback through more extensive public discussion.
Comments are still coming into the VIA office and the report is still under review. However, Smith indicates that although some may have questions on some of the fine points in the document, there appears to be broad industry support for the directions taken in the study. The final version of the report will be published in early fall, and will be widely available to any entity contemplating a videotex service or a gateway. The association's goal with this project is to have the ideas in the report discussed in business and public policy forums.
The gateway study process was built on a vision of a markedly different consumer environment for videotex than exists today. By the year 2000, videotex would be accessible to 97% of the North American households that now have access to telephone dial tones. Enough people would have access to terminals either in their homes, offices, or public locations so that half of the population would make at least occasional use of videotex. Many useful services would be available online--some for a fee and others supported by advertisers. Services would be national, regional and local in focus, but would be accessible by local telephone call. Unlike today, "gateway" mechanisms would allow videotex usage to be spontaneous.
Gateways were defined by the group as functions that facilitate electronic access by users to remote services, and vice versa. The gateways under discussion are intended to provide casual users with "one-stop shopping"--points at which users could gain access to a wide variety of services through commonly used protocols.
The existence of these gateways, however, would not preclude the kind of intensive relationships between users and information service providers that exist today between services and their direct subscribers. In the emerging environment there will be "mass market gateways" and "specialized gateways." For mass market usage to build, it was felt that certain gateway characteristics would have to be implemented uniformly. Study participants agreed that gateways must be
* easy to use and adaptable to users at various levels of expertise;
* ubiquitous throughout North America and not limited, for example, to markets of a certain size or socioeconomic profile; and
* uniform, to eliminate the need for users to learn different procedures for each system.
When gateways are in place, users will have access to online directories of available services, will be connected easily to the service of their choice with no additional sign-on procedures required, and will be billed by the gateway for the amount of time they spent online. Users will either establish accounts with their "primary" gateways--and thus be able to specify interest profiles or navigation preferences--or use the gateways spontaneously, providing billing information each time.
The ben efits of the gateway systems for service providers include increased marketing exposure, access to user identification information and provision of billing services.
The principles developed are meant to apply to any distribution technology. However, there seems to be agreement in the industry that Bell telephone entry into the gateway business will be important if videotex is to enter the mainstream of American communications.
Dealing with pornography and how services will be listed and cross indexed were among the other issues raised but not resolved in the study and conference process.
At the conference, Ron Curlee, Director of Industry Relations for Houston-based U.S. Videotel and chairman of the gateway study steering committee, told industry members that the study was only a first step, and urged them not to be complacent. "Your continued participation and endorsement of activities such as this study is important to generate the confidence required to encourage the huge investments necessary to make videotex a reality."
Though there may be consensus on the general direction of the industry, there is still plenty of diversity in the way gateways are being implemented. And specific factors in implementation, such as pricing, promotion, content or markets targeted, will be key determinants of success. This is already turning into an interesting year for gateway watching.
The two US Bell exhibitors at the VIA show care cases in point. Bell Atlantic is gearing its first gateway trial to small and medium sized businesses. Its Pennsylvania trial this fall will provide access to a maximum of 25 service providers, including existing umbrella information and communications services such as CompuServe, Comp-U-Store, Delphi, NewsNet, The Source, Western Union's Easy Link and Dialcom, and specialized local services from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania.
US West, on the other hand, is taking a broad-based approach to videotax development. It has not yet announced its plans, but hinted at its general direction in Washington. At a press conference announcing a French connectivity and research agreement with Minitel USA, Linda Laskowski, US West VP and General Manager of the Information Provider Market, said that US West had a long-term commitment to building the basic infrastructure that would support the industry and emphasized that this went beyond "just building gateways" possibly into becoming a service bureau for potential information providers. Any gateway US West builds will be able to accommodate many different kinds of equipment as terminals, she said. The agreement with France was only the first. We share the view with France that this be a global information service," Laskowski said.
The focus on Bell companies as gateway providers came under some criticism at the conference, however. Matt Mattson, Chairman and CEO of Costa Mesa-based Data-Tel, repeatedly made participants aware that non-telco "gateways" to large arrays of databases already exist--his firm's national satellite and fiber obtics network among them.
Patricia Worthy, Chairman of the District of Columbia's Public Service Commission and a leader in the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, indicated that state regulators would be asking hard questions about whether telephone ratepayers would ultimately have to bear the costs of building the infrastructure required for gateways.
The Washington conference reflected the fact that the information and services side of the videotax picture has been somewhat static, taking a back seat to the development of gateways, improved terminals and software. Only a small proportion of the attendees represented service providers, for example, and though the expo included a large display on Bell Canada's forthcoming Alex project (due to launch in Montreal in December) and demonstrations of CitiNet, AppleLink and MinitelNet, the stress was on hardware, software and international connections. There was little indication of the tremendous influx of new services that will be needed to make mass market gateways feasible.
Bringing new information providers into the industry will not be easy. Confidence that a mass market for electronic information services can, in fact, be built, will have to be revived among those who were once part of the industry. Reid Ashe, President and Publisher of Knight Ridder's Wichita Eagle-Beacon and former CEO of Viewtron, did indicate that the emerging gateway environment might be attractive to newspapers who, this time around, could focus exclusively on the services side of the business without expending resources on the marketing of terminals or collecting from customers.
Public and nonprofit organizations with information of value of the public will need special assistance in order to become information providers, according to Sam simon, a Washington-based communications lawyer who is President of Issue Dynamics.
Although the term information provider (IP) is often used to describe producers of videotax services, it is important to remember that those services are not always information. "There is a growing feeling among the videotax community that provision of information is really a small piece of what is going to drive the business," Smith reminded Information Today afte rhte conference. When you look at actual videotex usage, he said, communications comes out on top, next transactions, and only then information. "Perhaps we have too much focused on information and not the full range of services that people want."
Clearly a lot of work needs to be done by the next annual conference in San Francisco in mid June 1989, when the focus will be on videotex services.
"Many of the people who share the dream don't identify with videotax," Tom Morgan said as he addressed the final session. "This has been an outstanding conference, but much too small for building an industry." Expansion of membership will clearly be important for the future, expecially among the information community.
Over the summer, in addition to finalizing the Gateway study for publication, officers of the association will be determining its next steps. A Gateway II project is under consideration--a study with a narrow set of objectives, that would go into more depth on some of the specifics of gateways. Also being considered is a project--dubbed "Greenhouse"--that would propose a role for the VIA in effectively educating and stimulating the service provider marketplace.
Quantum Computer Services cofounder and Executive Vice President Steve Case pointed out the need for segments of the industry to work more closely with one another. He said that myopia characterized the outlook of the videotex industry on personal computing, and vice versa. With more than 30 million PCs now is use in the US and more than $3 billion spent on PC software he maintained that personal computing is not a "niche market," as many in videotex now believe. On the other hand, "PC manufacturers don't really understand the capabilities and potential of videotex," he contends. "As such they have not been willing to make investments to build telecommunications capabilities into their products. For example, it would be quite easy and fairly inexpensive for PC manufacturers to include a modem in every computer they manufacture, but they haven't done so because they don't believe there is much of a market for modem-based services."
If industry cooperation is indeed a key to market development, the videotex industry is certainly on the right track with its gateway project.