Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Story of StarText: 1985 - Part Four

Measured by attendance, the StarText subscriber user meeting held July 20 at the Dallas Infomart turned out to be our biggest ever. There were over 200 people present, which percentage-wise was more than 10% of our subscription base.

Other than the 30-mile trek from Fort Worth, the location was ideal. The Infomart was designed to showcase technology -- seven stories of glass and steel with multiple meeting rooms. Plus every major computer club in the Metroplex converged there one Saturday a month. It even had a food court.

For the staff who gave up their Saturdays to be there, it was gratifying to see such a high interest level from our customers. Editor Christine Russell noted among the 200+ attendees were almost 30 subscriber columnists, noting "the contributions of these special subscribers are what make StarText unique and separates us from other BBS services."

One of those columnists, Bob Walthers, wrote a columnn that took a humorous look at life, and on occasion, StarText. The Infomart meeting was one of those occasions. Bob's report included this:

"[The Informart] -- "this marvelous paean to advanced technology, modeled after the famed Crystal Palace in London ... opened its triumphant doors to 200-plus semi-conscious StarText subscribers, some seven unnaturally alert StarText staff members and a handful of crew preparing for a trade show, WITHOUT A CUP OF COFFEE TO BE HAD IN THE WHOLE &$%#)_#BUILDING."

He also reported the staff's stock answer to most questions was, "Wait till Version 4."

But the lack of coffee at the Infomart wasn't the big news to come out of that meeting, and my journalist friends would accuse me of burying the lead on that score.

The next product we rolled out that July was the addition of something that had been near the top of the "wish list" for many customers -- an online encyclopedia.

Two decades before Wikipedia, the idea of making an encyclopedia available online made all kinds of sense, even then. Like thousands of other families, my parents bought us a set of World Books to help with our homework. And every year we ended up buying the Yearbook that kept our set of books up to date. At some point we actually had more Yearbooks than we had World Books.

The advantages of an online version were obvious:

-- Updates could be electronic, so theorically, the online encyclopedia was never out of date.

-- It was the only way to stay current with the pace of information.

-- Instead of "owning" a set of essentially history books, it could be available on demand.

Not to mention the convenience. Doing research was as close as your keyboard.

The only vendor offering a commercial, online version of their encycloepdia at the time was Grolier's, who published their Academic American Encyclopedia on CDROM that year. It contained 31,000 entries, encompassing 10 million words. But more importantly, it was updated every 90 days.

We had been negotiating with them for six months and were ready to make the announcement at the user meeting.

Rather than have a per-minute charge for its use, we opted to offer tiers of usage: Customers could purchase three hours for $19.95, up to 10 hours for $49.95. By way of introduction, every subscriber got 20 minutes of service at no charge.

Leave it to programmer Larry Groebe to do a deep dive into the "tekkie" aspects of adding the encyclopedia:

"The encyclopedia came to us on two reels of magnetic tape, the old-fashioned kind you see in sci-fi movies involving evil computers. Each reel holds about 36 megabytes of information ... If the raw encyclopedia tapes were to be printed, 60 lines to a page, it would consume 15,000 sheets of paper."

Another feature that made its debut that month was The Film Vault.

While not nearly approaching the scale or importance of a HomeBanking or online encyclopedia, it was nonetheless an interesting marriage of content and technology.

Its genesis was rooted in the Star-Telegram TV book, the weekly roundup of what's on TV that comes with the Sunday newspaper. One of the features was an alphabetical listing of every movie showing that week on every channel, typically hundreds of titles.

"What if ..." we wondered ... we stored that list of movies and on a weekly basis, appended the new titles ... then made it searchable by title, genre and year? Wouldn't we end up with a database movie fans would love to have? It might not be today's Internet Movie DataBase, but for its day it would pretty darn good.

The key takeaway for us was the realizing the value of "evergreen" information, like movies, recipes, gardening advice, home improvement tips, etc. Repackaging and re-purposing that data had multiple benefits. It's interesting to note how databases and database reporting are one of the hottest trends in journalism these days.

As we raced into Fall, there's no questions 1985 had been an exciting and eventful year for StarText. But we weren't done yet.

Yet another new product was about to "take flight."

To be continued ...