Once upon a time there was a service called Prestel The idea was that by connecting a computer to the telephone line, you could access a remote central computer containing a database of information. A kind of much expanded and turbo-charged Teletext service. Further, and unlike Teletext, you could interact: You could send messages to other users, order goods and services, make reservations, and take part in various multi-user facilities such as chat rooms.

Sounds a bit like something we have today?


Nowadays, Prestel has long since disappeared and is virtually forgotten. IT, never an industry to have much regard for it’s own history and heritage, doesn’t celebrate past advances much. Even important historical figures such as Alan Turing (who is becoming regarded as something of a father of computing) are almost unknown today. It is left to volunteers and enthusiasts to raise the profile of the past. (A tip of the hat to Jason Gorman and others who are doing this).

In one of my less successful predictions (though to be fair, I was still at school when I made it), I thought at the time that Prestel was the future. I thought people would embrace it with open arms. Instead it was pretty much written off as expensive and pointless by most and never achieved more than 90000 subscribers. In a weird twist of fate, the point at which It may have started really breaking through into the mainstream coincided with the internet and World Wide Web taking off. It is perhaps Ironic that one of the reasons for Prestel’s unpopularity was the fact that to connect to it involved the cost of a local telephone call. Yet when the web took off (in the era of dial-up modems – no broadband yet) people seemed to forget that that was exactly what they had to do.

The rest is history. Prestel was dead and buried before it even got properly started.

Should we feel nostalgic or emotional about such things? I do – though I’m not entirely sure why. In a way, you could just dismiss the whole thing as a failure. After all, many printed magazines had more subscribers than Prestel ever did. But it did do one important thing: By planting the seeds of an online world, people could at least see the possibilities for real. It wasn’t just research lab theory – It worked. Technology could deliver instant information and interaction into your home. People hopefully would (and did) get enthused and strive for a bigger, better and more ubiquitous online world. And we all know where that led.

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