1.24: Videotex - The Telephone-Television Link

You may buy your television set in a furniture store. However, it is unlike any other piece of furniture in your home. A piece of furniture which talks is qualitatively different from a sideboard and a chesterfield. You can now buy your telephone handset in a teleboutique, take it home, and plug it in like any other household utensil. However, a household utensil which you talk into is qualitatively different from a vacuum cleaner and a microwave oven. The difference is nicely illustrated by the fact that some dramatists have seriously considered the telephone and the television as characters in their plays.

Your telephone handset and your television set are communication machines which link you in your home to the outside world. Until recently, they were completely independent links.11 A third communication machine has now become available which links the television and the telephone.

Videotex talks to you like the television set and permits you to talk to it like the telephone. You can use your telephone to have any of a number of images, which are stored in a computer, displayed on your television screen. Those images may contain information about the weather, local events, hotel accommodation, restaurants, and so on.

Whereas the first generation of videotex systems (for example, Britain's Prestel and France's Antiope) creates those images point-by-point like a pointallistic painting, the second generation of videotex systems (for example, Canada's Telidon) creates those images out of a number of geometrical elements like a cubist painting.

No one is interested in providing the content for a new communication system unless there is a carriage to deliver it. No one is interested in providing the carriage unless there is content to be delivered. Such a situation, in which you can't do B until you do A and you can't do A until you do B, has been variously described as the chicken-and-egg dilemma, the critical mass problem, and catch-22. One solution to this problem is to conduct Operation Bootstrap. The Department of Communications of the Canadian Government injected massive funds into such an operation to simultaneously provide the hardware for the carriage and the software for the content.

It was a bold attempt. However, videotex has had some marketing problems. It is a solution in search of a problem. We don't seem to know yet what it is for. To tie it to the two technologies already almost universally available in North American homes - telephone and television - was very clever. Too clever perhaps. Television and telephony are so ubiquitous because people know what they are for and find those functions useful. They do not want both such useful technologies tied up by a technology whose function is not yet clear.

11   You become aware of this when there is a power failure. When the lights go out as you are reading, you console yourself that you will watch television instead. No television. You will listen to radio? No radio. You will make yourself a cup of tea and stare at the electric fire. No electric stove to boil your water and no electric fire. You will call a friend and chat? Finally, something works - the telephone has an alternative line into your home.