Prestel

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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.

Contents

Initial developers

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

The public Prestel database consisted of a set of individual frames, which were arranged in 24 lines of 40 characters each, similar to the display used by the Ceefax and ORACLE teletext services provided by the BBC and ITV television companies. Of these, the top line was reserved for the name of the Information Provider, the price and the page number, and the bottom line was reserved for system messages. Thus there remained 22 lines (of 40 characters each) in which the IP could present information to the end user. [1] Each frame was stored in a block of 1 kilobyte (1024 bytes), out of which at least 104 bytes were reserved for routing and system information. This left 920 bytes for the frame contents, 716 bytes in the case of response frames. The IP logo on line 1 occupied at least 43 bytes, depending on the number of control characters, so the space available for the IP's data is 877 characters at most.[2] 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.

Available characters consisted of upper and lower case alphanumeric characters as well as punctuation and simple arithmetic symbols, using a variant of ISO 646 and CCITT standard.[3] This layout was later formalised into the 1981 CEPT1 standard. In addition, mosaic graphics were available in which in character position was divided into six squares, which could be used in any combination, giving the possibility of 64 different graphics characters. Alphanumeric characters or mosaics could be entered in white or any one of six foreground colours (red, blue, green, yellow, cyan, magenta) and set against a background of the same colours as well as black. Special control symbols were employed so that characters or mosaics could be made to flash, appear double height, be separated by a border or be “concealed” (which were made visible by means of a special “reveal” button on the Prestel keypad).[4]

Page numbers were from 1 to 9 digits in length, i.e. in the range 0 to 999999999 [4] created in a tree like structure, whereby lower level pages could only exist if the higher numbered “parent” pages had already been created.[5] Thus creating page 7471 required pages 747, 74 and 7 to exist, but generally the three digit node 747 would have been created in order to register the relevant main IP account. [5] Single and double digit pages were special pages reserved by Prestel for general system information purposes, as were the 1nn-199nn sets of three digit nodes e.g. page 1a was the standard Prestel Main Index. Pages starting with a 9 were for system management functions, and were limited to three digits in length. e.g. page 92 showed details of the users Prestel bill, and page 910 gave IPs access to online editing facilities. [5]

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 [5]. 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. [4] 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.

The Information Providers' view

There were two levels of Information Provider (IP) – firstly a "Main IP" who rented pages from Post Office Telecommunications (PO)/British Telecom (BT) directly, and who thus owned a three digit node or "master page" in the Prestel database. This required significant ongoing investment, starting with an annual payment to become an IP, which included editing rights, the rental of 100 frames, and the ability to store 10 response frames, as well as instruction manuals and training. The price of this basic package was £5,500 per annum in 1983 [6], equivalent to around £22,000 as at end 2009.[7] Additional frames were available in batches of 500 for £500 per annum [6] (over £2,000 as at end 2009[7]) while Closed User Groups cost £250 [6] (over £1,000 as at end 2009 [7]).

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[1]. The Main IP had to pay an additional £250 to obtain the privilege but could then rent out individual pages at a market rate. Unlike the main IP, sub-IP's had to pay a per-minute charge for editing online, 8p per minute in 1983 (over 30p as at end 2009[7]). 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.

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. 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 Computers Ltd|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 .

Using the online editor facility IP's were also able to view information about their pages which was hidden from the ordinary end user, such as the time and date of the last update, whether the frame was in a Closed User Group (CUG), the price to view the frame (if any) and the "frame count" or number of times the frame had been accessed. The frame count was not accumulated over all IRC's but related only to the computer which was being viewed at the time so gaining national access counts was a manual exercise.

IP's and sub-IP’s accessed the Edit computer using their normal ID and password, but had a separate password to access the editing facility. Bulk uploads only required the edit password and the IPs account number.

The users' view

Users were generally not required to enter an ID in order to log on to one of their local Prestel computers since the session was identified by means of a 10 digit "terminal identifier" which was programmed into their Prestel set at the time of registration. Individual users were then required to enter a further 4 digits representing a user password. Following registration when an initial password was issued, users were able to choose their own password via frame 920.[4] Having logged on each user was taken direct to their default main index page, known as the Welcome Page. For standard users, this would be page 1a, the general top level index to the whole of Prestel. However, if a user signed up through, or later joined, products or services from major IP's, such as Micronet 800, Club 403, Prestel Travel, CitiService, etc, they would be given a different welcome page, so that after logon they were routed directly to 800a, 403a, 747a etc.

From the Welcome Page it was possible for any user to find pages of information in several different ways, or a combination of them. Printed directories were available which gave the full page numbers corresponding to the items in an alphabetical index. Pages were accessed directly by keying "*page number#".[4] Individual pages often had links to related pages which could be accessed by use of one or two digit routing codes. This feature was widely used on sets of index pages which were commonly grouped by subject heading, provided both by the Post Office/BT and by individual IP's. Because of the numerical limitation it was often necessary to go through a series of index pages in order to reach the desired page. Extension frames which might be required to view further information on a topic could be only accessed by use of the "#" key.[4] From 1987 onwards it became possible to use access Prestel pages via use of special alphabetic codes, provided that the IP who owned the page set up a special keyword mapped onto that page. Thus by keying *M NEWS# it was possible for a user to route directly to page *40111# to obtain new about micro-computers.[5]

Special commands were also available, for example to facilitate movement around the database it was possible to step back through a maximum of 3 frames or pages by use of the special key combination "*#".[4] In the event of corruption of a page in transmission it was possible to refresh the page by means of the code *00, which had the advantage of avoiding any page charge being raised again.[4] Alternatively it the user wished to update a page to see the latest information, for example of flight arrival times, the *09 command would retrieve the latest updates, at the same time re-billing any page display charge.[4] If all else failed a user could simply return to the first page which he saw after logging onto the system by use of the *0# combination which brought up their default Main Index.[4] Exceptionally information could be hidden on a frame by an IP which could only be revealed by use of the ‘Reveal” key of the keypad (e.g. to show an answer to a quiz). The same 'Reveal' key was also used to hide the data once more.[4]

Prestel infrastructure

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. [1]

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 copes of the pages to end users.[1] 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. [1]

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) 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 singleton machine was present.[1] 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. [3]

In the new infrastructure IRC’s were connected to the UDC in a star network configuration, originally via leased line permanent (not packed switched) connections, based on the X25 protocol, operating at 2.4 kilobits per second (kbit/s). [8] 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. [1] [3]

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. [9] Fully equipped IRC machines had a design capacity of 200 user ports each [1] but these first ten machines were initially only capable of supporting approximately 1,000 users between them, expandable later to 2,000 users. [9]

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. [8] Further IRC’s were planned at Luton, Reading, Sevenoaks, Brighton, Leeds, Newcastle, Cardiff, Bristol, Bournemouth, Chelmsford and Norwich by the end of 1980. [8] 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.[3] 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%. [1]

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. [10]

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 dedicate to the exchange of messages. The only example of this type, which became known as Pandora, [5] 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 [4]. 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 [5].

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. [11]

Prestel messaging

In 1983 the Prestel messaging service known as “Prestel Mailbox” was launched, initially hosted on the computer known as "Enterprise"[5], 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[1]. The user’s name, address, telephone number, and date could be added automatically to the message by the IP by adding codes which triggered extraction of the 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 was implemented, and with the introduction of Mailbox, they could be retrieved from any IRC.

In order to use Prestel Mailbox a blank message frame, accessed via *77#, was displayed with the sender’s mailbox number pre-filled, leaving space for the recipient’s mailbox number and the message itself. Many other mailbox frames were also available offering various designs or seasonal messages. Messages could only occupy a single frame, and were terminated by pressing the # key on each field. Completing the last, or only, of which lead to the request to “KEY 1 TO SEND KEY 2 NOT TO SEND”. If it was desired to send the message to more than one recipient then it was necessary to re-key the message text, although some popular micro-computers of the time provided the facility to store the message to that it could be copied and pasted into a new message [4].

Messages were retrieved from page *930#, where they were presented to the recipient in chronological order. After reading, one had to choose between deleting the message, or saving it, before the next message was presented. Only three messages could be saved at any one time, and these were accessible via page *931#. Every time a user logged into Prestel, a message, usually flashing, on the Welcome page would alert them if they had any new messages waiting.

Mailbox numbers were available on the Prestel computers in a dedicated directory accessible from page *486#.

Public take-up of the service

Whilst teletext services were provided free of charge, and were encoded as part of the regular television transmissions, Prestel data was transmitted via telephone lines to a set-top box 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 [3]. In the 1980's most domestic telephone installations were hard wired so that additional equipment such as a modem or Prestel terminal could not be connected to the telephone line without provision of this 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 Micronet800) 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.

File:Prestel-Terminal.jpg
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. Even the more gaming-orientated 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 Micronet800 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 Austria, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Hong Kong, Germany, Netherlands, 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.

In 1990, BT introduced a new commercial model which effectively killed the domestic usage of the service, charge 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

In contrast to the demise of the British system, the French equivalent of Prestel, Teletel/Minitel, which used the 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 remains well used, with access now also possible over the Internet.

In 1979 The New Opportunity Press launched Careerdata, an interactive Graduate recruitment service devised and designed by Anthony Felix, the New Opportunity Press MD, and supported by GEC's Hirst Reseach 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 invented online shopping, 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 the first travel industry system in Thomson Holidays in 1981.[12]

Homelink

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

References

  • 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. British Telecom - Post Office Telecommunications. September 1984. 
  • Prestel: The Technology. British Telecom - Post Office Telecommunications. August 1980. pp. 1-17. 

See also

External links

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