From dumb terminals with multiple standards to integrated home information appliances ... where the industry is going.
Where the Industry is Going
American CitiNet, parent firm of the venerable Boston CitiNet and the fledgling Omaha CitiNet, is a videotex service bureau and information provider that has had to adapt to various protocols in order to distribute its information.
Its ASCII services appear on the NYNEX Info-Look gateways in Burlington, Vermont and New York, and will soon be on Bell Atlantic's Philadelphia and Washington gateways. It will be providing services in Teletel format for the Teletel-based Southwestern Bell SourceLine gateway in Houston and for the CommunityLink gateway USWEST launched in Omaha recently. In addition, the firm is currently preparing to bring several dozen of its services to Bell Canada's Alex by converting to NAPLPS.
CitiNet President Richard Koch believes NAPLPS is the direction in which the industry must move. He points out its higher resolution, capacity to fit more on the screen, and, therefore, facility for the information provider to "do nicer things." It has nice color and gives you almost full animation. "The American consumer is used to that," he says.
Prodigy uses a subset of NAPLPS for its service. Alex's NAPLPS services are designed and available to PC users in color now, but consumer Alextels have only black and white displays for the time being. Baseline's Monoco is another advocate for color, and the company's Teletel consumer services are already provided in full color.
Many in the industry see a single standard as far off on the horizon and are taking a realistic approach to the lack of standardization. While promoting their own favorite standard, most are willing to cooperate with others.
Time will tell, but terminal manufacturers are hedging their bets, responding to demand created by services using three primary protocols in North America. French Minitel terminals, including those being imported to North America, operate in two standards, Teletel and ASCII. The Alextel operates in NAPLPS and ASCII now, but to position itself for the U.S. market, its manufacturer, Northern Telecom, is developing a tri-standard terminal that will operate in ASCII, NAPLPS and Teletel modes.
Multi-standard terminals facilitate interconnections, especially among international systems. In this era of global communications and trade, those linkages are essential. Not taking any chances, Data-Tel Video Text Inc., a firm that calls itself "the new telephone company" and is marketing telephone and distributed videotex services in the U.S. through a hierarchy of dealer distributors, is working with several other international terminal manufacturers to produce "Video Phones" that incorporate many international videotex protocols including German Bildschirtext.
And those do not even exhaust the videotex formats now in use, or the possible combinations! Prestel, the grandfather of videotex, is still alive and well in Great Britain. A system called Teleview was launched in Singapore in September 1988, designed by Marconi, a British firm. Touted as being the "world's most advanced public videotex service," it combines information retrieval requests via telephone with high-bandwidth, full television speed, quality and color delivery of the requested information. And in Hawaii, where the state's Department of Budget and Finance has set up a nonprofit corporation to develop the first tri-standard (ASCII, Teletel and NAPLPS) gateway for consumer and business services, incorporating Japan's Captain videotex standard was also considered.
Beyond developing flexibility regarding videotex formats, how else can we expect videotex terminals to evolve?
Northern Telecom has recently enhanced the Alextel with special encrypted security functions that make videotex a more attractive vehicle for financial transactions. Its test with Hydro Quebec, Montreal's electric power utility, is on the leading edge of energy management. It involves a home area network that users consult and can control via the Alex terminal that monitors energy use.
We can also look abroad, where the market has matured to the point that users want more functionality, to see what might be ahead in terminal design and peripherals. Some Minitels have word processing and uploading capabilities, as well as the ability to switch between voice and text transmission during a call. Some terminals incorporate a telephone handset. Answering devices, printers, card readers, RAM storage, color monitors and light pens are among the wide array of peripherals that are manufactured for the Minitel.
Also, messages entered into Minitels in France can be transmitted to beepers in what is known as the Alphapage Service. At the destination, the message may be a just a beep, 15 digits, or a full forty or eighty character text display on a liquid crystal screen receiver with storage capabilities.
Smart cards are also used in France if controlled access is desired, for security in entering or retrieving messages, and to decode encrypted, confidential messages.
Philips, inventor of CD-ROM, demonstrated use of a small CD reader, operating with a Minitel for catalog and educational applications at a recent industry show.
"The solution for the '90s" Monoco believes, "is a telephone with a screen and a fax slot on the back." Such a device would incorporate voice, voice mail, audiotex, videotex and fax. "The French are already working on it," Monoco says. "The Minitel we are looking at, they gave up on long ago." One of the latest models from Telic Alcatel has enough local memory for callers to leave text messages and receivers to print them out.
The driving technological trends are the enlarging data pipeline to the user, with the advent of fiber and ISDN to the home, and increasing data compression ability. These create the potential for increased speed, interactivity and photographic quality down the road, perhaps in five years, Glover speculates. Color is now available on some Minitel terminals, including those Northern Telecom is now marketing for business users. But it is not priced for the consumer market at present. "The issue right now for the mass market," Glover states, "is that you've got to get that impulse buyer; you've got to have that low barrier to usage." The precursor of the truly integrated terminal is already with us, and accessible to the public. Compugram, Inc., an Illinois manufacturer of public telephone terminals, has created a "global office" for the busy business traveler. Its top of the line Public Access Terminal is definitely on the bulky side compared with a Minitel, but can provide many of the same services of a luxury hotel's "business center" at low cost at any hour of the day or night. It looks like an overgrown pay phone with a built-in video screen, computer keyboard and accompanying fax.
Users can access their home office PCs or mainframes, get into electronic mail networks, retrieve information from public or private online databases, including Dialog, send telexes or telegrams, as well as make credit card calls. The "Compugram Information Network," an option on the terminal, allows users to access UPI, Eaasy Sabre, CompuServe, Delphi, Dialcom, Dialog, Dow Jones News/Retrieval, the Official Airline Guides and an electronic yellow pages.
Several thousand of these terminals are in use in the United States, and more internationally, catering primarily to foreign business travelers who need to overcome time differences to communicate with their home offices. In addition to hotels, these terminals are available in airport lounges and even in courthouses.
However, the home is the focus of industry attention at present. Jupiter's Joshua Harris is teaming up with Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications to conduct a conference on "The Home Information Appliance" in New York next March.
Harris points out that terminal fragmentation extends beyond the variety of Minitels and videotex standards. There are also proprietary and industry-specific systems, with additional variations on the horizon. With the costs of terminals coming down, he says, one can expect large corporations such as financial institutions to distribute dedicated equipment to their customers. And, of course, one shouldn't dismiss AT & T, Nintendo, or even the implications of HDTV (high definition television) for the future of videotex.
Harris points out that rather than simply consumer attraction to the terminals, it may be the "smoothness and basic viscosity" of the systems that force their IPs to adhere to certain basic standards that may contribute to their apparent current success with users. "The Minitel terminal we all know and love is like looking at the black and white TV of the '60s," he says. "The question for the '90s is who is going to reach the critical standard first." There will have to be one standard before companies will invest the hundreds of millions of dollars required to make terminals ubiquitous. And, no matter how large their investments, the telephone companies have not yet spent any "real money" relative to their size, he says. Eventually, Harris feels videotex might evolve toward one universal standard, but he feels that is about a decade away--after a good deal of the experimentation and market fragmentation we are now witnessing.
Wallys W. Conhaim is a Minneapolis-based independent planning and research consultant specializing in applications of emerging communications and information technologies.
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|Author:||Conhaim, Wallys W.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1990|
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