The Teleputer Story
It could be said that 1979 was more the EDP era than the IT era. The world of computing was dominated by large pieces of- equipment – mainframes with large cabinets full of magnetic tapes and disk drives, large floor-standing line printers, air-conditioning and suspended floors [ to hide all the cabling] ; minicomputers in industrial 19” racking sprouting cables and looking somewhat unfriendly. Visual display units were big, chunky and cathode ray tube- based with monocolour screens. The new Personal Computers were coming into use but there was little standardization and not much software. It was early days for PCs.
With the growth in multiprogramming, multitasking and real-time transaction-processing software in mainframes and mini-computers in the 1970s there were a growing number of interactive computer systems in use but they tended to be very expensive to buy and run and because of the bespoke software they used they were time-consuming to develop, test and maintain. Telecommunications with these systems were so complex as almost to be a ‘black art.’ Software was still evolving. The computing world was awash with proprietary communications systems usually tied to a particular computer manufacturer and often a particular computer. Standardization was a distant dream.
The physical infrastructure of the UK’s telephone network was poor. Digital call switching was just beginning to be installed and it would take up to 20 years to achieve complete UK coverage .The Government -owned Post Office Telecommunications [PTT] had a monopoly on telephone provision in the UK. They also had a monopoly on line provision and services. Modems were supplied or approved by the PTT . All modems were boxes. There were no chip modems. The PTT defended its line connection regulation by saying that it was the only way to protect the network. However the times were changing. Within two years of the new government being elected in 1979 the PTT was sold to the public in a privatisation. The PTT became British Telecom.
The Prestel development by the PTT between 1974 and 1980 was a classic monopoly play. The PTT would provide a service; the customers would use it. There was no competition except amongst information providers. Put succinctly, it was the PTT way or the highway. The PTT planned to introduce a telephone-based version of the successful CEEFAX text-based TV service developed by the BBC and broadcast nationally on their TV channels to great acclaim. Prestel [Press the Telly!] used the colour character set designed by the BBC for CEEFAX and incorporated in UK televisions at the behest of the BBC but delivered the text-based services down a telephone line rather than by broadcast signal.[The BBC CEEFAX system broadcast text in the vertical blanking interval on a conventional broadcast screen] With the PTT Prestel, information providers would provide in aggregate virtually unlimited text pages [CEEFAX was limited} and domestic subscribers would pay for the new information services. As these services would be delivered down a telephone line, the PTT would generate more traffic and the subscriber would pay call charges as well as information charges. It is easier to deconstruct the product than the marketing rationale behind it. CEEFAX was free.
The new Prestel service could only be commercially viable if customers were prepared to pay for information services and if there was a critical mass of Prestel-capable televisions to interface to it. Customers would only buy these televisions if they were reasonably priced and if the services delivered were reasonable value. To connect a TV to a telephone line requires a modem whether in the TV set or in a set-top box. To get the TV to use a dial-up domestic telephone line requires an auto-dialler. Notwithstanding that the PTT would not allow other parties to connect chip modems to its networks, it then proceeded to produce its own chip modem for its own Prestel service. 1979 was an interesting year.
As I connected a 26” colour television with a Prestel chip set to a real-time transaction processing computer and invented online shopping, I was struck by the sheer weirdness of using a big floor-standing TV as a terminal. The TV had to have a cable-connected keyboard. The attractive feature of the television was the 40x24 text (and simple graphics) display and character set and the simplicity of operating the Prestel –style menus. At the time there were very few simple-to-operate computers of any kind. This character set had been designed by the BBC and it was good.
My initial thoughts were about how to make the television acceptable in the mass market as a terminal but quickly I moved on to what kind of computing device you might actually want, in an ideal world, in the home. It seemed pretty simple. Take a small, portable colour TV; add a PC and a communication system. Put them together with appropriate hardware and software to make an integrated system and you have it. The device would be the second television in the home not the prime television in the family room.
Out of curiosity I started to put one together. We took a 14” Rediffusion colour television, a Z 80 microcomputer with some basic software and the Prestel chip set. The Z80 went into a plinth box, the TV sat on the box and the keyboard went in front of the plinth. It was hardly rocket science. To my surprise the quick ‘lash-up’ worked and one could see how easily the cosmetics of the device could be made acceptable for the home! I called it the ‘Teleputer.’ It was 1980. I had succeeded in creating a product for a market that didn’t exist.
It was time now for some serious thinking. The Teleputer was a visionary product and very exciting. But we had a business to run and we had to find a way of marketing it profitably. The strength of the product was its versatility. If we integrated the hardware and software we could create – a PC with a colour monitor that could do local processing, access any network computers with its chip modem and the appropriate terminal emulation software, operate as a videotex and Prestel terminal or just be an expensive TV. If we used a PC operating system like CP/M we could use third party software, greatly widening the performance envelope of the product. In the event we decided to take CP/M and modify it to our own particular integration needs. We then re-named it CP*. Because of its networking capability and file handling, unique at the time, it was obvious that the Teleputer would be best suited to environments where there were networks. That meant large corporations. There was no realistic prospect of mass marketing for a product like the Teleputer because it was too far ahead of its time, and it was too expensive for the residential market then emerging. Intense free publicity enabled us to offer it in the open market for a number of years sold by specialist dealers with some success. If Prestel had been an unexpected success the Teleputer would have done extremely well. But otherwise for the mass market it was really an IT icon promising a new world of information technology.
Our main company marketing plan was to the sell Business to Business online shopping to large corporations. We would also sell innovative information systems using videotex to large corporations. These corporations would need a desktop device with keyboard, colour display screen, printer and communication subsystem for simple applications. We called this terminal Teleputer 1.
We then thought that the more sophisticated applications would need local intelligence and should be capable of sending and receiving files. To the Z 80 we added the CP* operating system which gave us word processor, spreadsheet, good graphics, database and a semi-compiled programming language for bespoke programming. Most companies did not want a TV in their office so we made the tuner circuitry from the 14” colour television an option (in practice most did not have it). This device could also support a printer. Initially it used floppy disks and later a hard disk. We called it Teleputer 3. With the tuner installed it could have made an excellent home computer and future generations of Teleputer 3 could have brought online shopping to the home. At the time we were also playing with the then experimental 12” laser disks [that eventually became the 5” CD/DVD disks} and we planned further models of Teleputer aimed at computer- based training. 1980 was a busy year.
The Teleputer 1 and 3 were put into production and released 9 months after invention. When launched the Teleputer was greeted with astonishment , The Guardian proclaiming ‘The Thing has arrived.’ They both sold well to ROCC videotex users but as expected they found no mass market. Interest was so great we even did a Cyrillic version for the Soviet Union and sold 200 plus just for the Siberian Gas Pipeline project. Soon IBM released the IBM PC which had a huge effect on the PC market [and of course was the direct predecessor of today’s Microsoft-driven PC]. It would be some years before there was another universal easy- to -use human interface on a PC. That latter interface originally developed by Xerox remains the standard today. The PC itself has developed beyond recognition in terms of increased computing power, increased disk storage and universal communications connectivity via the internet/www. Colour is standard on all screens and printers. Pre-school kids use them. The services available over the internet are nothing short of amazing.
Sitting in 2008 at a laptop with a broadband internet link and looking at a video and listening to the music, it is amusing to think back to 1980 and the Teleputer. It did set a benchmark for the multifunctional home computer system with an easy-to use human interface. Today’s computers are also seriously multifunctional and have a common easy-to-use human interface. Interestingly, delivery of television programmes albeit digital is still in its infancy. It was the TV reception on the Teleputer that led me to start thinking about how to get bandwidth (broadband) in the home and deliver the information highway to all consumers and citizens. That led to the project to permit cable systems in the UK. But that is another story.
This article is part of the Michael Aldrich Archive donated to the Aldrich Library at the University of Brighton in the section titled ‘Teleputers and Cable Systems.’
© Michael Aldrich 2011