Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Story of StarText: 1985 - Part Three

The headline in the June, 1985 issue of StarText INK touted the big announcement:

"StarText, InterFirst to offer banking."

That certainly started Year Four with a bang. Quoting from the story:

"Friday afternoon, May 31, Phillip Meek, president and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and James Perry, chairman and chief executive officer of InterFirst Bank Fort Worth, signed a joint agreement to offer the first bank-at-home service available in the Southwest."

The service, dubbed simply as HomeBanking, would debut in the Fall.

While paying bills and transacting banking business electronically is now just part of the daily routine for many, in 1985 not so much. And while it would do most of the things you would expect it to -- pay bills, transfer funds, show your balance -- it did something that electronic banking services don't do even today: Maintain the "float" that goes with writing checks the old-fashioned way.

Research had shown that was the single biggest objection to giving up checks: Losing the time it takes for the check to clear. So HomeBanking would calculate the standard "float" for each payee and incorporate that delay before withdrawing the funds from your account. Pretty slick.

Meek commented that "What we are particularly excited about is that it preserves 'float' for the banking customer. To our knowledge, no other home banking service offers this significant advantage."

StarText subscribers could add HomeBanking for an additional $1 a month (a total of $10.95); non-StarText customers would pay $6 a month for HomeBanking alone. Those fees covered the first 30 transactions, with additional transactions billed at 15 cents each. The savings in stamps and envelopes covered those fees and then some.

Gary Mabra, InterFirst Fort Worth VP and Cashier, noted a survey of bank customers with home computers showed 50 perecent would be interested in a home banking product.

To mark the occasion, an S-T photograher was on hand to capture the historic moment. Below is that picture, featuring, in front: James Perry, InterFirst CEO and Chairman, left, and Phillip Meek, Star-Telegram president and publisher. In the back, left to right, was yours truly (sorry about the hair but it was the Eighties so give me a break), Joe Donth, Eddie Stamps, Gary Mabra and Mike Hyatt from InterFirst.

While a lot of the groundwork had been laid, much was left to do before you could "open the bank with a touch of a button," as the red promotion piece pictured above declared. Newly-hired programmer Larry Groebe would be devoting a good chunk of his time to that project in the coming months.

While partnering with a major bank to launch a high-profile product was exhilerating, it also was important strategically. We saw a need to grow StarText beyond a news and information service. Email was a step in that direction. Transaction-based services, like HomeBanking, was another. Diversifying would not only open StarText to new audiences, but also potential new revenue streams.

On other fronts, we announced our second subscriber user meeting of the year, which would be hosted by the Infomart, an expansive "temple to technology" off Stemmons Expressway whose architecture inspired one pundit to call it "the world's largest reflective wedding cake."

Besides housing offices for many of the world's leading technology companies, it also played host on weekends to dozens of computer user groups, including a StarText SIG (Special Interest Group).

July saw the beginning of the second chain novel, titled "CITYWARS -- Quest for the Life Planet." Like the first novel subscribers wrote together the previous summer ("Friday the 13th - The Final Chapter"), the premise was totally plausible:

"Fort Worth, Dallas and dozens of other city-ships escaped a nuclear catastrophe on their mother planet," wrote editor Christine Russell. "The city-ships battle for mining rights to precious minerals; all ships are in search of an Eden-like planet that contains all life-substaining minerals."

Chapter One was penned by the Star-Telegram's Pultizer Prize-winning reporter, Mark Thompson, who set the action in the 5th Quadrant, a "cloudy, purple environment with limited visibility" in the year 2462. Kind of like present-day LA I would imagine.

Another market where we expended a lot of time and energy was schools.

As computers began to proliferate in homes, schools also saw the benefits of integrating them into classrooms and libraries. Educators were already making use of information aggregators, like CompuServe and The Source, to retrieve stories and documents electronically. The problem in making their use more widespread was cost. Paying by the minute added up fast.

Enter StarText, with its flat rate, all-you-can-eat model for $9.95 a month.

While the information may not have been as broad or deep as you could find in the big national databases, it was pretty much the only source for local news and a great source for news of all kinds. Any computer or even a "dumb" terminal could access it. Teachers could even take advantage of features like e-mail. And for longstanding programs like Newspapers in Education (NIE), it provided extra value and a great complement to the print product.

One of the first and most enthusiastic supporters of StarText was the Richardson Independent School District, located in Richardson, an upscale city north of Dallas. They pioneered its use at every grade level, largely through the efforts of their computer consultant, Frank Piasecki.

Pisasecki talked about its use in the July issue of INK:

"As a research tool, StarText offers a wealth of incredibly timely information on a wide range of topics. . . while also offering students increased computer literacy awareness."

Altogether, StarText was in use at more than 200 Metroplex schools and was popular for home schoolers as well, something that became another point of pride.

In fact, the next "big announcement" we were about to make was right in line with schools and scholarship.

To be continued ....

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