Viewtron was an online service offered by Knight-Ridder and AT&T from 1983 to 1986. Patterned after the British Post Office's Prestel system, it started as a videotex service requiring users to have a special terminal, the AT&T Sceptre. It began to be offered on IBM, Apple and Commodore computers as home computers and other personal computers became important in the marketplace.
Viewtron differed from contemporary services like CompuServe and The Source by emphasizing news from the Miami Herald and Associated Press and e-commerce services from JC Penney and other merchants over computer-oriented services such as file downloads or online chat. Intended to be "the McDonald's of videotex", Viewtron was specifically targeted toward users who would be apprehensive about using a computer.
Viewtron also offered airline schedules from the Official Airline Guide (OAG), real estate research from Century 21, e-cards from Hallmark, product information from Consumer Reports, educational software from Scott Foresman, online auctions, financial services from American Express and EF Hutton, as well as limited online banking services as part of a research program into the uses and costs of banking online that included 20 US and Canadian banks.
At its height, Viewtron was operated in at least 15 cities by various newspaper companies. After six years of research and an investment reportedly in excess of $50 million, Viewtron never turned a profit, and Knight Ridder did not expect it ever would be profitable. Viewtron closed on March 31, 1986, after an attempt by the Independent Commodore Users Group to buy the service failed.
A feature tying Viewtron to local newspapers was envisioned, with printed text instructing users how to access further information online, but it was never implemented.
Hosted on a fault-tolerant Tandem/16 minicomputer, Viewtron used the NAPLPS graphics language to provide a user interface that was graphically sophisticated by the standards of the time. According to Chip Bok, screens were crafted so as they loaded, elements would be drawn in sequence, "the way you would tell a story". Unlike HTML, NAPLPS allowed screen elements that remained unchanged through different pages of a story to remain static, an important concern with the low bandwidth modems then in use.
Despite being initially restricted to the chiclet keyboard-equipped AT&T Sceptre terminal, Viewtron's developers foresaw that general purpose personal computers would soon become the preferred way to consume online content. The Viewtron software was written from the beginning to be easily portable, and the work was able to be completed within 24 hours after the decision to refocus on home computer development.
Viewtron did not initially allow users to send private messages to each other, a conscious decision by Knight Ridder to exert editorial control. When interactive features were later added, Knight Ridder discouraged their use, fearing a "dystopia without newspapers".
Known as "Bowsprit", Viewtron underwent a test period in 125 upper-income homes in Coral Gables, Florida from 1980-1981, where it was determined that customers would pay up to $600 for the required terminal. The service went live in south Florida (Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties) on October 30, 1983. Viewtron expanded to include all of Florida in 1984 and to other U.S. cities by 1985. After Viewtron went national, its subscriber base quickly grew from 3,000 users to 20,000. Despite its rapid growth, Viewtron soon learned that the majority of users dropped their subscriptions after six months, and the most used areas of the service among the remaining users were not Viewtron's news feeds, but the email and live chat.
At the service's introduction, customers could buy the AT&T terminal but after May 1984 it was only offered for rental at $39.95 per month, which included a subscription to the service. Other customers paid $12 per month, plus a $1 hourly charge for access. After October 1985, Viewtron was carried nationally over the Tymnet, Telenet and Uninet time sharing networks in the US, and by Datapac in Canada at a rate of 9 cents per minute on nights and weekends, and 22 cents per minute on weekdays.
Viewtron's downfall came when Knight Ridder discovered at the end of 1985 that, despite the bulk of its expenses going toward its news feeds, users were spending most of their online time using the service's email, message boards and educational areas. Instead of effectively becoming an online service provider, Knight Ridder decided to concentrate on its core news business. According to Philip Meyer, Director of News and Circulation Research for Knight Ridder at the time, "We made the mistake of thinking in newspaper analogies. Thus the central computer was like a printing press in our minds, and telephone wires were the delivery trucks... As newspaper people, we were looking for a community-based natural monopoly, like a newspaper, but without the variable costs of paper, ink, and transportation."
- InfoWorld Sep 15, 1980.
- Finberg, Howard I. (2003-10-29). "Before the Web, There Was Viewtron". Poynteronline.com. Retrieved 2007-09-03.
- "Script of The New Tech Times Program Number 113".
- "Viewtron". University of Florida Interactive Media Center. Retrieved 2007-09-03.
- Negotiations to buy Viewtron fail: Knight-Ridder shuts down service, Infoworld, April 7, 1986, p. 16
- "Viewtron Remembered Roundtable".
- Widman, Jake (October 9, 2008). "Lessons Learned: IT's Biggest Project Failures". PCWorld. Retrieved October 23, 2012.
- "Viewtron Remembered Roundtable". "Because my staff had planned from day one that this was likely to happen, we needed about 24 hours to tweak our code to work in the new system. Not so with other departments. The “vision” wasn’t very far out."
- "Denying Destiny: Viewtron and the refusal to recognize mutual shaping of technology". "Like letters to the editor, people can enter frames for everyone else to read. There will be editorial control. We’ll read the messages first and not let anything through we consider libelous or obscene"
- "Denying Destiny: Viewtron and the refusal to recognize mutual shaping of technology". "Bulletin board contributors were held at arm's length when they tried to converse. In the rare case where individuals' innovative uses were recorded, they were derided, and the picture of a dystopia without newspapers was painted."
- Floridians Experiment with Videotex Buying.
- "REPORT FROM CORAL GABLES: THE KNIGHT-RIDDER/AT&T VIEWTRON TEST".
- User Group Offers to Buy Viewtron.
- "Creating Community-Connection Experiences". "People bought it. We delivered. They were satisfied. But they quit using it because they didn’t really want it. It wasn’t more news or more information that users wanted, it was communication—interaction not with a machine, but with each other."
- InfoWorld Oct 7, 1985.
- "Viewtron Remembered Roundtable". "Viewtron was spending about 80 percent of its budget to create news, which generated less than 20 percent of the revenue. That’s when KR executives decided that this was NOT a news medium and they wanted to continue to be a news company."
- "Viewtron Remembered Roundtable". "The more closely we approached a viable service, the less it looked like a newspaper."
- David Carlson's Online Timeline - The 1980s
- AT&T Archives: Viewtron Introduction, from the Viewdata Corporation
- AT&T Archives: The Viewtron System and Sceptre Videotex Terminal (1983)
- Henry Urrows, Floridians experiment with videotex buying, Infoworld, April 9, 1984
- NS 2852: Tech before its time (six articles)
- Knightfall: Knight Ridder And How The Erosion Of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk