Prestel

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For the publisher, see Prestel Publishing.
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Prestel (abbrev. from press telephone), the brand name for the UK Post Office's Viewdata technology, was an interactive videotex system developed during the late 1970s and commercially launched in 1979. It achieved a maximum of 90,000 subscribers in the UK and was eventually sold by BT in 1994.

Initial developers[edit]

The innovations on which it was based were credited to Samuel Fedida at the then Post Office Research Station in Martlesham, Suffolk. In 1978, a team of programmers was recruited from within the Post Office Data Processing Executive. Under the management of David Wood they developed the software for the public access Prestel system. In 1983, as privatisation of British Telecom loomed the staff of the software development team were moved into the Prestel Division of BT.

The database[edit]

Lines could either occupy the full forty character positions, or be terminated early with a CR/LF sequence. Each control character took up two bytes, despite displaying as a single space, so the more complex a page, the less actual information could be presented. It was almost impossible, therefore, to display a right hand border to a page.

By embedding cursor-control characters within the page data, it was also possible to encode simple animations by re-writing parts of the screen already displayed. These were termed "dynamic frames" and could not be created online using conventional editing terminals, but required specialist software and uploading via the "bulk update" facility. No timing options were available beyond that imposed by the available transmission speed, usually 1,200 baud.

Routing from page to page through the database was arranged by the use of numbered items on index pages, which used the space in the frame routing table to map the index links directly to other page numbers.[1] Thus an index on page 747 might have links requiring the user to key 1 for “UK Flights”, key 2 for “Flights to Europe”, or key 3 for “Hotels” which represented links to page 74781, 74782, and 74791 respectively. The routing table for a particular frame only allowed specification of routes for digits 0-9, so double digit routes would typically be sent via an "intermediate" frame, usually a spare frame elsewhere in the IP's database, to which the first digit of all similarly numbered items would link. Since pressing a number would interrupt a page that was currently being displayed, the keying of a double digit route would not generally inconvenience the viewer with the display of the intermediate frame.

Pages did not scroll, but could effectively be extended by the use of frames, which required alphanumeric suffixes to be appended to the numeric page numbers. Thus keying page *7471# actually resulted in the display of frame 7471a which could be extended by use of follow-on frames 7471b, 7471c etc.[2] each of which was accessed by repeated use of the "#" key. Because the Prestel system was originally designed to be operated solely by means of a simple numeric keypad it was not possible to access frames other than the top level frame directly (i.e., in this case pages other than "7471a").

This follow-on frame facility was exploited extensively by the implementation of telesoftware on Prestel whereby computer programmes, notably for the BBC Micro, were available for download from Prestel. Generally speaking, the first two or three frames acted as header pages. For example, one such programme was described on frame 70067a, and 70067b, while frame 70067c gave the number of subsequent frames containing the programme, and a crosscheck sum. Special software enabled this crosscheck sum to be compared with a value calculated from the result of downloading all the required frames in order to verify a successful download. The actual telesoftware programme was contained from frame 70067d onwards, in this case for a further ten frames. In the event that the check failed it was necessary to download the entire programme again starting from the beginning.

Each frame had a single-character type code associated with it. Most frames would be "i" (for "Information" types) but other types included response frames, mailbox pages, or gateway pages. Special frame types could also be specified which caused the follow-on frame to be automatically displayed, with or without the usual clear-screen code, as soon as the current frame had finished being transmitted. These were mainly used by "dynamic frames", as it provided a mechanism to continue animations which would not otherwise fit within the number of characters available in a standard frame.

The Information Providers' view[edit]

For the smaller firm or institution who did not wish to make such a large annual investment in this new technology it was possible to act as a “Sub-IP”, renting pages from a Main IP rather than from the Post Office/British Telecom.Sub-IPs were restricted to pages under a 4 or more digit node within a Main IP's area, and could only edit existing pages. Sub-IP accounts were unable to create or delete pages or frames themselves.

Bulk update required that pages be created offline by the use of editing terminals which could store pages, or by micro-computers such as that provided by Apple or Acorn. The pages were then transmitted to the UDC online in bulk via a special dialup port and protocol, or sent via magnetic tape to the Update Centre (UDC) where they were uploaded by Network Operations (NOC) staff.Editing of pages was possible in one of two ways, either directly by creating or amending pages using special editing keyboards whilst connected online to the main Update Computer, or by creating pages offline and updating them in bulk to the main Update Computer.

Prestel infrastructure[edit]

When the public Prestel service was first launched in March 1979, there was just a single machine in central London to support both editing activity and user access.In order to support the planned major expansion programme, a new Prestel infrastructure was designed around two distinct types of computer centre: the Update Centre (UDC) where IPs could create, amend and delete their pages of information, and the Information Retrieval Centre (IRC) which supplied mirrored copies of the pages to end users.In practice there only ever was one Update Centre, and this always housed just one update computer, named "Duke", but within six months of public launch there were in addition two dedicated information retrieval computers.

Baynard House, Blackfriars

In those early days of the public service all the live Prestel computers were located in St Alphage House, a 1960's office block on Fore Street in the City of London. At the time the National Operations Centre (NOC) was located in the same building on the same floor. The computers and the NOC were later moved to Baynard House, (on Queen Victoria Street, also in the City of London) which acted as a combined UDC and IRC. Both types of machine, together with other development hardware, remained in service there until 1994 when the Prestel service was sold by BT to a private company.

Each IRC normally housed two information retrieval computers, although in some IRCs in London just a single machine was present.[3] IRCs were generally located within major telephone exchanges, rather than in BT Data Processing Centres, in order to give room for the extensive communications requirements. Exchange buildings were ideally suited to housing the large numbers of rack mounted 1200/75 baud modems and associated cabling as well as the racks of 16-port Multi-Channel Asynchronous Communications Control Units (MCACCUs) or multiplexors from GEC which gave the modems logical access into the computers.[4]

In the new infrastructure, IRCs were connected to the UDC in a star network configuration, originally via leased line permanent (not packet switched) connections, based on the X25 protocol, operating at 2.4 kilobits per second (kbit/s).[5] By mid 1981, these private circuit links had been replaced with dedicated 4-wire X25 circuits over the new public Packet Switch Stream (PSS) network operating at 4.8(kbit/s.[3][4]

By June 1980, there were four singleton retrieval computers in London, plus six other machines installed in pairs at IRC sites in Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester.[6] Fully equipped IRC machines had a design capacity of 200 user ports each[3] but these first ten machines were initially only capable of supporting approximately 1,000 users between them, expandable later to 2,000 users.[6]

By September 1980, there were five IRC machines in London plus pairs of machines at Birmingham, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Belfast offering a total of 914 user ports.[5] Further IRC’s were planned at Luton, Reading, Sevenoaks, Brighton, Leeds, Newcastle, Cardiff, Bristol, Bournemouth, Chelmsford and Norwich by the end of 1980.[5] In some of these locations where there was insufficient Prestel traffic to warrant siting an IRC computer, the plans were to site multiplex equipment in a suitable exchange building from where connections were made over X25 to the nearest proper IRC.[4] As at the end of 1980, there was actually a total of 1500 live computer ports available and by July 1981, the number of IRC computers has been expended to 18, increasing the coverage of the telephone subscriber population from 30% to 62%.[3]

In 1982, using the multiplexor technique described above, a virtual IRC was created in Boston, Massachusetts giving access to a machine in the UK known as Hogarth in order to provide Prestel services to subscribers from across the United States via the Telenet packet switching network.[7]

The Prestel Mailbox service was originally launched on Enterprise computer to support messaging solely between users on that machine and by 1984, the facility had been rolled out nationwide. This required a further type of Prestel computer dedicated to the exchange of messages. The only example of this type, which became known as Pandora,[1] was co-located with the UDC in Baynard House, London.

Originally Prestel IRC computers were directly dialled by means of an ordinary telephone number (e.g., the Enterprise computer in Croydon was accessed by dialling 01 686 0311.[2] By 1984, the special short dialling codes 618 and 918 were in use in order to give access to the nearest IRC at local telephone call rates, at least across most parts of the UK.[1]

In 1987, the entire local access network was being overhauled and shared with other Dialcom Group companies - users connecting and not automatically logging into Prestel would be greeted with a menu allowing access to Prestel, Telecom Gold, etc.[8]

Prestel computer hardware and software[edit]

This arrangement effectively limited the size of the public service database to around 250,000 frames[5] so in order to cope with planned growth by 1981 the IRC machines had been expanded by the addition of two further data drives.[3]

Each IRC computer was configured with 208 ports and so was able to support 200 simultaneous Prestel users, the remaining 8 ports being used for test and control functions. Access for the ordinary user was provided via the duplex asynchronous interface provided by banks of GEC 16-port multi-channel asynchronous control units (MCACCU) known more simply as multiplexers. These devices in turn were accessed via banks of standard Post Office Modems No. 20 operating at 1200/75 bit/s, which were connected directly to the public switched telephone network (PSTN).[3]

By 1981, this configuration had changed with memory doubled to 768 kbytes but with data discs reduced to six, corresponding to the number at the IRC machines and with just a single transaction disc.[3] In addition to the MCACCU units required to support 1200/75 dial up access, the Update Centre machines were also connected to special modems provided to support online bulk updating by IPs. Banks of 300/300 bit/s full duplex asynchronous V21 modems supported computer to computer links for the more sophisticated IP while 1200 bit/s half duplex V23 modems supported so called intelligent editing terminals (i.e. those capable of storing a number of frames offline before uploading to the UDC). In addition twin 9-track NRZI tape decks of 800 bytes/inch capacity were provided in order to support bulk offline updates.[3][4]

Although technically categorised as minicomputers, these GEC machines were physically very large by today’s standards, each occupying several standard communications cabinets, each standing 6-foot (1.8 m) high by 2 feet (0.61 m) wide. The CDC 9762 hard disc drives were housed separately in large stand-alone units, each one about the size of a domestic washing machine. (See images in the photo of the GEC Computers' Development Centre). The 70 MB capacity hard discs themselves were in fact removable units, each consisting of a stack of five 14 inch platters, standing 4 inches (10 cm) high, that could be lifted in and out of the drive unit.

The GEC machines cost in excess of £200,000 each at GEC standard prices, in addition to which there were the costs of all the associated communications equipment. Putting together all of the computer and communications equipment required for a single IRC was a major undertaking and took some 15 months from order placement to commissioning.[3]

GEC 4000 series computers were capable of running a number of operating systems but in practice Prestel machines exclusively ran OS4000 which itself was developed by GEC. This in turn supported BABBAGE,[4] the so-called high level assembler language in which all the Prestel software for both IRC and UDC machines (and later the messaging machine) was written.

In 1987, a Prestel Admin computer was introduced which supported the user registration process: the capture of user details from the paper Prestel Application Form (PAF), the transfer of data to the relevant Prestel computer, and the printing of the Welcome letter for users. This machine, also based upon GEC 4082 equipment, was the first to be equipped with 1 Mbyte of memory which was required to support the Rapport relational database. This product from Logica was an early example of deployment of a system written in a 4GL database language which supported all features of the Prestel Admin application.

Prestel monitoring equipment[edit]

In order to proactively manage the potentially large numbers of user connections to Prestel computers, special monitoring equipment was developed by Post Office Research & Development engineers. This was known by the acronym VAMPIRE, short for Viewdata Access Monitor and Priority Incident Reporting Equipment – a title which more or less describes its function.[3][4] The device used private circuits to link modem ports on each IRC computer or remote multiplexor node, with a display on a Prestel television screen at the Regional Prestel Centre responsible for managing that IRC.[3] The VAMPIRE screen consisted of a matrix of small squares, so arranged that all ports for a single IRC computer could be displayed on a single television with each square representing the state of a port simply by means of the colour.[4] Free ports were shown as green, occupied ports as yellow, incoming calls as pale blue and faulty ports as red, such that the state of a whole Prestel machine or concentrator node could be determined at a glance.

It was apparently planned to extend this facility via a system designated the Data Recording and Concentrator Unit for Line Applications known as DRACULA, which would generate a summary view so that the state of multiple computers could be displayed on a single screen.[4] This device was never deployed since the number of VAMPIRE sets needed to monitor every Prestel computer and concentrator never got beyond a couple of dozen, spread over many Regional Prestel Centre offices.

Prestel messaging[edit]

In 1983 the Prestel messaging service known as “Prestel Mailbox” was launched, initially hosted on the computer known as "Enterprise",[1] and later available from all IRC computers by means of a centralised messaging computer known as "Pandora". This facility extended the original day one concept of “Response Frames” whereby an end user could send a message back to the IP who owned the page via special pages, for example to order goods or services.[3] The user’s name, address, telephone number, and date could be added automatically to the message when the IP set up the response frame by means of codes which triggered extraction of key data from the users account held on the IRC computer. Initially response frames were ingathered by an IP from each IRC individually, but later the facility to collect messages from all IRCs at the UDC from where they could be ingathered centrally was implemented, and with the introduction of Mailbox, they could be retrieved from any IRC.

Prestel Mailbox numbers were generally based upon the last 9 digits of the user's telephone number, without spaces or punctuation. For example the Prestel Mailbox number for Prestel Headquarters which had the telephone number 01-822 2211 would be simply 018222211,[9] On request, ex-directory mailbox numbers were available, usually employing a dummy telephone number format such as the series 01999nnnn, and later the series 01111nnnn.

Every time a user logged into Prestel, a Mailbox banner on their Welcome page, usually flashing, would alert them if they had any new messages waiting. Similarly, upon the user's request to sign off the system via *90#, a warning would appear if any new messages had arrived, with an option to read them, before the user was allowed to disconnect.

Use of the basic Mailbox service was free, that is to say there were no registration charges for owning a mailbox, or for sending new messages or for storing received messages, although even by 1984 only five messages could be saved once they had been read.

By 1984 the basic Mailbox service had been extended to give automatic access to the Telex service which at the time was still relatively common in business and was the standard way to reach remoter parts of the globe. Using a special Telex Link page, the message was composed in the usual way and then the destination country chosen and the Telex number entered before sending just like a standard message.[9] Telex Link added the necessary Telex codes as required and tried to send the message as many times as required before positively confirming receipt by means of a special Mailbox message.[9] Telexes could be sent to Prestel Mailbox users from a standard Telex terminal by using Telex Link number and inserting "MBX" and the relevant mailbox number as the first line of the telex message itself. The incoming telex message appeared to the Prestel recipient just as an ordinary Mailbox message but with the telex number inserted at the top of the frame.[9]

From July 1989, a new mailbox system was introduced[10] which allowed for single messages of up to five frames in length, storing of messages prior to sending, sending to multiple recipients, either individually or via a mailing list, forwarding of messages, and requesting an acknowledgment of receipt. Whilst sending a simple mailbox using none of the new facilities remained free, all of the new options were charged at 1p per use per recipient. For the first time, the sending of spam was accounted for and permitted, albeit at 20p per recipient. In addition, the stored message facility was replaced by a summary page, which listed all the messages, both new and old, that were waiting. The user could then pick which message to view, rather than being required to read through them all in chronological order. As only the first 20 could be accessed, this effectively allowed for up to 19 messages to be stored while allowing the continued reception of new mail.

Public take-up of the service[edit]

While teletext services were provided free of charge, and were encoded as part of the regular television transmissions, Prestel data were transmitted via telephone lines to a set-top box terminal, computer, or dedicated terminal. While this enabled interactive services and a crude form of e-mail to be provided, gaining access to Prestel also involved purchasing a suitable terminal, and arranging with a Post Office engineer for the installation of a connection point known as a Jack 96A.[4] In the 1980s, most domestic telephone installations were hard wired, so additional equipment such as a modem or Prestel terminal could not be connected to the telephone line without provision of a special socket.

Thereafter it was necessary to pay both a monthly subscription and the cost of local telephone calls. On top of this, some services (notably parts of Micronet 800) sold content on a paid-for basis. Each Prestel screen carried a price in pence in the top right-hand corner. Single screens could cost up to 99p.

The original idea was to persuade consumers to buy a modified television set with an inbuilt modem and a keypad remote control in order to access the service, but no more than a handful of models were ever marketed and they were prohibitively expensive. Set-top boxes were pioneered by the Nottingham Building Society for its customers, who could make financial transactions via Prestel.

Prestel terminal

The access situation improved as home computers became more commonplace, and by the late 1980s it was possible to use a machine such as a BBC Micro or Atari computer, equipped with a 1200/75 baud modem and some simple software, to access the Prestel service. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum had a large number of users via a low-cost modem called the VTX-5000. It was possible to buy downloadable content such as simple games. This would be encoded in a series of pages that were not human-readable, but encoded in blocks of rather less than 1 kilobyte per page. The header and footer of these pages was normal, however, so users could watch the pages appearing one after another to build up the downloaded file. To charge for content, generally the final pages of the downloaded file were charged at up to 99p each, the maximum possible page price on Prestel. By charging at the end of the download, problems with aborted downloads being charged for were generally avoided.

Because the communication over telephone lines did not use any kind of error correction protocol, it was prone to interference from line noise which would result in garbled text. This was particularly problematic with early home modems which used acoustic couplers, because most home phones were hard-wired to the wall at that time.

However, it was still an expensive proposition, and as a result, Prestel only ever gained a limited market penetration among private consumers, achieving a total of just 90,000 subscribers, with the largest user groups being Micronet 800 with 20,000 users and Prestel Travel with 6,500 subscribers.

The costs for businesses interested in publishing on Prestel were also expensive. This ensured that only the largest or most forward thinking companies were interested in the service.

The BT Prestel software development team developed a number of national variants of Prestel, all of which ran on GEC Computers. They were sold to the PTTs of other countries, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Hong Kong, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Yugoslavia, [incomplete list]. Italy was the largest system with 180,000 subscribers. The Singapore system had a notable technology difference in that pages were not returned over the modem connection, but were returned using teletext methods over one of four TV channels reserved specially for the purpose, which had all scan lines encoded in teletext format. This higher bandwidth enabled use of a feature called Picture Prestel which was used to carry significantly higher resolution pictures than were available on other Prestel systems. It was also demonstrated at the 1982 Worlds Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA.

In 1990, BT introduced a new commercial model which effectively killed the domestic usage of the service, charging per-minute charges for access on top of the user's existing phone bill. Finally in 1991 it was decided that BT should move away from providing Value Added Services and should focus on network provision. Consequently the various consumer and business services were run down or sold off with such services as Prestel Travel and BTIS (BT Insurance Service) becoming private network services for third-party providers.

The 1984 hacker intrusion into the (very likely unused) Prestel mailbox of the Duke of Edinburgh garnered the network some unfavourable press, particularly when the simplicity of its security measures became apparent. The subsequent failure to successfully prosecute the intruders contributed to the introduction of the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

The Prestel name and equipment was eventually sold by British Telecom, and purchased by a private company, Financial Express, in 1994 and renamed New Prestel. During this period, the platform software was redeveloped onto a SCO Unix and Linux x86 platform away from the GEC 4000 Mini Computers. Additionally, the Citiservice financial data product was successfully redeveloped in house after being outsourced to Datastream during the time with BT.

Prestel Online, which was an Internet service provider spinoff, was sold to Scottish Telecom, and as of 5 June 2002, has since been merged into their other ISP activities.

The dial-up viewdata service was run down as the Internet gained in popularity.

Successes[edit]

In contrast to the demise of the British system, the French equivalent of Prestel, Teletel/Minitel, which used the technically slightly superior CEPT2 standard, received substantial public backing when millions of Minitel terminals were handed out free to telephone subscribers (causing Alcatel huge financial problems). As a consequence the Teletel network became very popular in France, and remained well used, with access later also possible over the Internet. After a short postponement, Minitel closed finally on 30 June 2012.[11]

In 1979 The New Opportunity Press launched Careerdata, an interactive Graduate recruitment service devised and designed by Anthony Felix,[12] the New Opportunity Press MD, and supported by GEC's Hirst Research centre in Wembley, London, who provided 12 terminals which were installed in the largest UK University Careers Advisory Services. This was the first commercial application on the new medium and was featured in the Prestel Road Show which toured the UK and some European centres. A closed access videotex system based on the Prestel model was developed by the travel industry, and continues to be almost universally used to this day by travel agents throughout the country: see Viewdata. The Prestel technology was also sold abroad to several countries, and in 1984 Prestel won a UK Queen's Award for Industry both for its innovative technology and use of British products (it largely ran on equipment provided by GEC Computers).

In 1979 Michael Aldrich developed an online shopping system, a type of e-commerce, using a modified domestic colour television equipped with the Prestel chip set and connected to a real-time transaction-processing computer via a domestic dial-up telelphone line. During the 1980s he sold these online shopping systems to large corporations mainly in the UK. All the terminals on these systems could also access the Prestel systems. Aldrich installed a travel industry system in Thomson Holidays in 1981.[13]

Other implementations[edit]

The Prestel system was implemented by Telecom Australia and renamed Viatel, with the centre of operations in Windsor, Melbourne, Australia. During the Black Monday stock market crash the system's stock trading system was highly used.

The American Viewtron videotex service was modeled after Prestel.

Homelink[edit]

In 1983 the UK's first online banking service opened with Homelink, which was a cooperation between the Nottingham Building Society and the Bank of Scotland.

Notes[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  • Broadhead, W.R. (July 1981). "Prestel: The First Year of Public Service". The Post Office Electrical Engineers' Journal (Institution of Post Office Engineers). 74 Part 2: 129–133. 
  • Prestel Bulk Update Technical Specification (9/1984). British Telecom - Post Office Telecommunications. September 1984. 
  • Prestel: The Technology (P507). British Telecom - Post Office Telecommunications. August 1980. pp. 1–17. 
  • BBC Microcomputer System - Prestel System User Gide (No 1). Acorn Computers, Fulbourn Road, Cherry Hinton, Cambridge CB1 4JN. March 1984. pp. 1–57. 
  • Cornwall, Hugo (August 1994). Hackers' Handbook - Electronic Research Edition. Virtual City Associates, PO Box 6447, London N4 4RX. Retrieved 1 February 2010. 
  • "Prestel IP Price List 1982". Prestel Marketing, Telephone House, Temple Avenue, London, EC4Y 0HL. October 1982. Retrieved 26 January 2010. 
  • "Measuring Worth website". Retrieved 26 January 2010. 
  • Plakias, Mark (25 May 1981). "Prestel Continues Struggle for Acceptance". Infoworld (InfoWorld Media Group) 3 (10): 6 & 29–30. ISSN 0199-6649. Retrieved 1 February 2010. 
  • Barry Scott (September 1980). Viewdata and Training: What, Where and How Much (PDF). Technical Report No. 9. Digital Equipment Corporation Educational Services, 30 North Avenue, Burlington, Massachusetts. Retrieved 1 February 2010. 
  • L.R.Bloom; A.G.Hanson; R.F.Linfield; D.R.Wortendyke (October 1980). "VIDEOTEX Systems and Services" (PDF). U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications & Information Administration, Institute for Telecommunication Sciences, Boulder, Colorado. NTIA Report 80-50. Retrieved 1 February 2010. 
  • Prestel Offline newsletter. British Telecom. July 1987. 
  • Prestel Information (P545 9/1984). Prestel, British Telecommunications plc, Temple Avenue, London, EC4Y 0HL. September 1984. 
  • Prestel Mailbox User Guide and cover letter, British Telecommunications plc. British Telecommunications plc, Temple Avenue, London, EC4Y 0HL. July 1989. 
  • Fedida, S. and Malik, R. (1979). The Viewdata Revolution. London, UK, Associated Business Press, ISBN 0-85227-214-6

External links[edit]