Saturday, July 18, 2009

Videotex '86 at the Infomart

Up until 1986, Star-Telegram Publisher Phil Meek had imposed a moratorium on StarText press releases and conference appearances by staffers. We were in "protective custody" of sorts. For good reasons.

Online at the time (much like today, actually) was inspiring waves of crazy spending and even crazier investing. We were having more success with our measured, home-grown, low-cost approach than Viewtron was with their glitzy, high stakes, high-dollar strategy (In point of fact, Viewtron closed its doors in 1986 after less than three years of operation.).

But Meek lifted restrictions on both in 1986, and we soon found StarText was in demand for the online conference circuit.

One of the first opportunities that presented itself was "Videotex '86," scheduled for the Dallas Informart May 6-8, 1986. In the popular parlance of today's bloggers, it was MAY-JAH. Spread over three days, there were dozens of top-flight speakers and hundreds of participants coming from all corners of the globe.

Online veteran Peter Winter, then serving as president of Online International Inc., the conference organizer, wrote that despite "the regrettable closure of two pioneering videotex operations, Gateway and Viewtron" over the past 12 months, "videotex was flourishing."

Among the speaker roster were such familiar names as Charles Forbes and Martin Nisenholtz (then with Oglivy and Mather, now senior VP, digital operations, for The New York Times).

We were invited to join a panel on consumer services. The question was, who would speak? None of the staff had any real experience speaking in a large, public forum. You are no doubt familiar with the surveys that rank "fear of public speaking" higher than "fear of death."

Early on, Joe and I hit the computer club circuit with our dog and pony show. And just about everyone on staff continued to speak at various club and subscriber events. Additionally, I was making numerous appearances in front of educators at schools and libraries as we moved aggressively to get StarText entrenched in schools. At any rate, I drew the assignment.

Probably the most interesting thing I remember from that experience was a fellow panelist who went on to make quite a name for himself some years later: Steve Case.

At the time Case was there to talk about Quantum Link, a new service for owners of Commodore computers from a company called Quantum Computer Services. In 1991, Quantum got a new name -- America Online -- and Case became CEO and chairman. You recall AOL merged with Time Warner in 2000 in a $164 billion deal.

StarText was also featured in a track on "Video Banking: Entry Options and Strategies." The session was titled, "StarText HomeBanking with Provisional Bill Payment," and the speaker was David Zent. Zent, VP in the Electronic Banking Support Group of InterFirst Services Corp., was instrumental in getting StarText HomeBanking to market (it made its debut in April, 1986 -- more on that in a later post).

There would be many more conference and speaking opportunities in the years ahead. In retrospect, probably one of the biggest cottage industries spawned by online would be the conference/consulting business.

And the big question, then as now, remains:

How do I make online profitable?

1986: HomeBanking Arrives

Ever since Stone Age man chiseled the first check, he has dreamed of paying bills at the touch of a button.

Okay, maybe the idea of doing banking on a computer didn't start with the Neanderthals, but it did catch fire in the Seventies and Eighties, first in Europe and then in the United States.

The Big Boys paved the cow paths in this country, familiar names like Citi, Chemical and Chase. What a concept. Enter the merchants you want to pay, the amount, the due date and voila! No checks, no stamps, no worries.

Of course, it took a regional bank and a local online service in Texas to bring to market the innovation that all home bankers longed to have and couldn't get with the Eastern Establishment banks: The Float.

Most everyone agreed the notion of banking from your keyboard in your pajamas sure was appealing. Except for one thing -- losing the cushion that checks provided known as "float" -- that period of time from when you wrote the check and the money was actually debited from your account. Which, depending on your circumstances, could be the difference between "paid" and "insufficient funds."

We thought this should be included a "must have" feature. Luckily, InterFirst, our banking partner, agreed. But rather than call it "float," they opted for "provisional payment."

As David Zent, vice-president at the Electronic Banking Support Group at InterFirst, explained at the Videotex '86 Conference:

"Provisional bill payment is similar to conventional bill payment except that the payment is always forwarded to the company, even if the customer does not have the funds in his account at the time the payment is released. Instead, the debit to the customer's account is warehoused by the bank until the date the merchant is scheduled to receive the payment. On that date the customer's account is debited."

Zent went on to say:

"Provisional Bill Payment addresses the consumer problems associated with conventional bill paying systems. As a result, more consumers are expected to participate."

HomeBanking required almost 150 screns of options, which were navigated by a combination of menus and keywords. You could begin by typing BANK, which allowed you, after using your PIN, to check your balances, pay bills or transfer funds.

There was also the option to designate recurring payments and a request a "future statement" that reflected payments authorized and not yet paid.

Despite its many forward-looking features, HomeBanking didn't find the wide audience or acceptance we all hoped it would in the late Eighties. That would have to wait for the Internet to make its appearance. But in retrospect, I count it as among our best achievements.

A newspaper and a bank teaming up for a project like this is rare in and of itself. The resulting product was something of which we could all be very proud. Hats off to Larry Groebe, who led the programming effort, and Joe Donth, who supervised.

At the time, StarText subscriber Ray Quay was authoring a column called The Electronic Cottage. He devoted the March edition to looking at the history of home banking.

Quoting Ray:

"Though the future of home banking is uncertain, it is clear (at least to me!) that home banking holds tremendous potential benefits ... Home banking has the potential to be one of the few microcomputer applications which can actually prove cost effective for general home use."

As someone who has been "home banking" via the Internet for the last decade or more, it's hard to imagine going back to writing checks, finding envelopes or buying stamps (and we know where the price of stamps have gone). It's one of the "must have" conveniences of having a PC connected to the World Wide Web.

StarText and InterFirst had it right. Just about 10 years too soon.

For more on HomeBanking, go to this 1985 post.