Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Story of StarText: 1984

(Note: This is one in a continuing series tracing the history of StarText. Read it from the beginning by using the Archive Post links on the right)

As the calendar rolled to 1984, the outlook seemed anything but Orwellian.

For the first time since I enlisted in this roller coaster project I was breathing a sigh of relief. We had been in business some 18 months and were not only surviving but actually showing steady growth. And the consumer rush to own the latest video game or personal computer continued unabated.

The year started with a bang when Apple debuted its newest pride and joy, the Macintosh, in January. It became an instant hit as supply couldn’t match demand. Not to be outdone, IBM rolled out the PC-AT. Computer user groups, where devotees of a particular product or brand formed clubs and held regular meetings, mushroomed.

At this stage there were still just a handful of local online commercial services around the country and StarText was among the largest. At the local level, the field was dominated by the BBS (short for Bulletin Board Service). Firing up your own BBS required little more than a dedicated phone line (or lines), a host computer and communications software. Fueled by teens and hobbyists, they proliferated and covered every subject imaginable. We couldn’t know it at the time, but these were the early forerunners of chat rooms, online gaming and the Internet newsgroups.

In some corners of the newspaper industry, they also triggered an early warning alarm. Technology was making it possible for anyone to set up an “electronic printing press” in their garage, basement or study and begin “publishing” news or even more ominous, classified ads. Yes, the interface was clunky, the delivery primitive and the audience barely a blip on the radar. But it was undeniable that a new threshold had been crossed. Unfortunately, the majority of newspaper executives saw the emerging online medium not as an opportunity to expand their business or reach a new audience but as a threat to their high-margin franchises. Or perhaps worse, as a passing fad that would never amount to anything.

There were exceptions. Knight-Ridder, one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains, had launched in late 1983 what would become the most high profile, and expensive, online ventures ever attempted by a media company. Dubbed Viewtron, and run as a separate business unit under the name Viewdata Corporation, it was developed primarily in partnership with AT&T. AT&T was anxious to tap new markets and online seemed ripe for the picking. As for Knight-Ridder, if a market was emerging for online news, they wanted to be ready to serve it.

While their motivations were good, their business plan, unfortunately, was not.

Viewdata’s approach to the online market ran counter to StarText’s in several ways. First, and most importantly, the interface was based on graphics, not text. They reasoned a service needed to be colorful, with pictures as well as text, to attract a large audience. While we all wanted our services to be “pretty,” going down that road opened the proverbial can of worms. Since there was no common graphical standard among personal computers, they effectively locked out a market already in place and growing. There was also the issue of speed. Downloading a graphic takes many times longer than text. The fastest personal modems of the time were 1200 baud. You can do the math.

To offer color and graphics, they decided to base the service on NAPLPS (North American Presentation Level Protocol Syntax), a graphics standard jointly developed in 1983 by AT&T and many of the major computer giants. Subscribers would connect by use of a dedicated terminal box from AT&T called a Spectre. Featuring an infrared keyboard and built-in 1200 baud modem, it utilized the television set for its display. The plan was to roll it out to customers along Florida’s “Gold Coast.” After market trials in Coral Gables, the initial focus was on the area from Miami to West Palm Beach (Knight-Ridder’s corporate headquarters was in Miami at that time). By late 1984, it was available all across Florida.

You can find an overview and screen shots here:

One look at the Sceptre gave Joe and I flashbacks to the old Videotex terminals Tandy hoped to sell by the thousands when we first launched StarText. Except instead of the $399 price tag for the Tandy device, the Sceptre started at $900. With few takers at that price (keep in mind this was a dumb terminal, not a computer), it was dropped to $600 and later, folded into the monthly fee of $39.95. On top of that, they were staffing up at a frightening pace. The more we learned about Viewtron, the more red flags went up.

Of course, we were more than just interested observers. Our parent, Capital Cities, had a small stake in Viewdata and an option to launch the service in the cities it served, including Fort Worth and Kansas City. Joe was appointed to attend the Viewtron meetings in Miami to get the latest progress reports. Based on what he saw and heard, Joe saw a business with disaster written all over it.

Nationally and worldwide, Viewtron was only the very public tip of an ever-growing iceberg of activity. Buoyed by red-hot PC sales, CompuServe and The Source were vying for the growing U.S. consumer market. Prestel and Minitel (both run on dedicated terminals or hardware) led the European efforts. Waiting in the wings was another high profile rollout: Trintex, jointly owned and funded by IBM, Sears and CBS. You probably know it better by the name it took later: Prodigy. It seemed virtually every major media and telecommunications company was either trying to drive a stake in the ground or float a trial balloon, mostly by throwing money at ill-conceived ideas. It was the Gold Rush all over again, except this precious metal wasn’t found in the ground but in the “cyberspace” all around us. And lurking in the background, largely unknown to most outside the government and scientific community, a network was gaining its own momentum quietly beneath the surface: A system of interconnected computers we know today as the Internet.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. Against this backdrop and behind the walls Publisher Phil Meek had erected, we continued the drive to add more subscribers. In our view, the two obvious ways to grow the business were 1) add more content and 2) add more functionality. We did both despite a bare-bones budget. The modest success we were enjoying also fueled another vision Joe had for his software: The possibility that some day we might market our system to other newspapers. Planting that seed was probably what Joe had in mind when he asked me to accompany him to the annual DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) Newspaper Computer Users Group meeting in Eugene, Oregon that January. Our host computer was a DEC VAX 750, and despite our own efforts to keep things quiet, word was spreading. Our peers, both here and aboard, were curious to know more.

While Joe was advancing the technology and improving the software, I was busy trying to elevate the editorial quality on a shoestring budget. To date we had been lucky. Restricted to hiring editors with little or no real-world experience due to budget limitations, we found some good talent, most of it right out of college. Christine Russell, my first hire, had grown to become a solid news editor. In 1983, we added Howard Schloss, newly graduated from Southern Methodist University with a BA in journalism. Even though we could never get his last name pronounced correctly, Howard worked hard and became an immediate contributor.

Unfortunately, Howard's tenure was brief. He soon accepted a job with United Press International. Since that time he has enjoyed great success in the financial arena. Wonder if he credits StarText for launching his career?

From Southern Methodist we turned again to Texas Christian and found Andy Kesling, all 6-foot, 8-inches of him. Soft-spoken and hard-working, Kesling was another solid performer who joined the staff in January and would be with us for several years to come.

The reason we could run StarText with such minimal staffing was our affiliation with the
Star-Telegram. With daily access to stories from their high-profile reporters and writers, already in final edit form, plus the 24-hour wire feeds, we had a content advantage over any competing BBS or national service. Against the CompuServes and Sources, the key word was “local.” No one had the depth and breadth of the local coverage we could provide. In the world of instant news, just as it was with our print brethren, local was our trump card (one thing that hasn’t changed for newspapers).

One of the most important dates in our early history occurred Feb. 23, 1984. On that day we marked a milestone event: 1,000 subscribers. While unremarkable by newspaper standards, it was like standing at the summit of a mountain for our little band of pioneers. Even more remarkable, it was mostly achieved by word of mouth, personal appearances at countless user group and computer club meetings -- plus the free trial password program we came up with. Like selling cars, we had to get customers in the “showroom” for a test drive. The free trial passwords were good for five free sessions on StarText. With no budget for marketing or promotion, we hand-carried them to computer stores, libraries, schools – anywhere where you might find our “target audience.” It become one of our most effective marketing programs.

To honor that occasion, Joe agreed to let us produce the first StarText T-shirt. It featured our logo and the words: “The First 1,000.” To our surprise, we sold hundreds at $5.95 to subscribers who were anxious to proudly display that claim. In fact, we saw them show up regularly for years afterward at events and special occasions, including our 10th anniversary party. It was further testament to the loyalty and ownership that many felt came with their $7.95-a-month subscription.

As the service expanded, so did my role. After the initial reorganization in which Joe and I took the reins, I continued to report through editorial to the executive editor, the late Jack Tinsley. In reality, I was working for Joe on a day-to-day basis. While editorial was supportive of our operation, they had very little direct involvement or really much more than a passing interest (we were still for all practical purposes “the toy department”). So I was both surprised and pleased when Joe offered me the job of general manager, reporting directly to him. That would give me control over everything except programming and IT, an area I happily conceded to Joe. It also meant after 14 years in the newsroom, I was now officially a “new media” guy.

While I would maintain a strong daily presence with the content, that change also meant I got to hire another editor. That person was Christy Jones, another recent graduate of TCU. Christy, who had training in both journalism and education, was ideally suited for StarText. She learned fast, she worked fast and loved tackling new assignments. But best of all, she was a true “people-person,” with a effervescent personality that bubbled sunshine. She and the subscribers connected immediately. Aside from one brief hiatus when she left to be a teacher, Christy would have the longest tenure of any StarText employee.

That May, with the numbers still growing, we marked our second anniversary of service, and brainstormed what to do next. Joe’s home-grown software gave us a measure of stability Tandy’s never did, which in turn unleashed our creative juices on ways to grow and better serve our audience. The unexpected success of the Christmas card contest a few months earlier helped fire our imaginations in a new direction. What else could we do that would invite subscriber participation?

It was becoming clear interactivity was right up there with content as a key building block for our fledgling business. Based on the steady stream of ideas and suggestions that came into our email boxes on a daily basis, we wondered, “Why not make the process a little more formal?” After all, a lot of the improvements and additions we were making were based on feedback from our customers.

The staff huddled and hatched the idea of a “town hall meeting.” It was pretty simple, really. We would find or rent a meeting place, decide a time and invite the subscribers to come together, meet the staff and share ideas. The agenda would be divided between discussing what we had planned and fielding questions from the audience. Naturally there were doubts. Like, would anybody show up? It was one thing to dash off a quick email but quite another to give up an evening, drive to a meeting that may or may not be in the neighborhood and interact with strangers. Only one way to find out.

We set about finding a place and got lucky. One of our subscribers was also pastor at a local church, centrally located in the Mid-Cities area (between Fort Worth and Dallas). He graciously volunteered to be our host. Picking a date came down to a Tuesday or Thursday night (Mondays and Fridays weren’t good and Joe pointed out Wednesdays are a church night for many). With everything set, we put out the word that the first StarText Town Hall Meeting would be a Thursday night in June.

With basic refreshments and name tags at the ready, subscribers started filing in. Some alone, some with friends, others with family members, totaling about 50 in all. Everyone’s name tag noted both their name and their StarText ID number. It turned out the subscribers enjoyed meeting each other as much as the staff. For the first time they could associate a face with an email address. Most of the questions were suggestions for making the service better, with the addition of 1200-baud service pretty much topping the list.

We judged it an unqualified success on all counts. So much so, we decided shortly thereafter to make it a regular part of how we did business. From that month onward, we held quarterly subscriber meetings. While our two-way medium provided many opportunities for subscriber/staff communication, we found nothing worked quite as well as meeting customers face-to-face. It often made me think how much better the newspaper might be if they adopted the same concept.

As the summer of ’84 rolled on, we put our thinking caps on again. This interactive stuff was working pretty well. What else could we do?

The dog days of summer are a notoriously bad time for online activities. Schools are out; people are on vacation; interest in news and computers seems to wane. What could we do to drum up interest and engage our subscribers during the hot Texas summer? That was pretty much the genesis of what became another tradition: The StarText Short Story Contest.

We already knew many of the customers were aspiring writers through the subscriber columns we hosted. We suspected others would join them if given the right motivation. Of course, we couldn’t have a story contest without judges, not to mention prizes for the winners. We found our judges by twisting arms in the newsroom. For prizes, we turned to the computer stores around town who participated in our marketing programs, plus the option of offering free extensions to their StarText service. As we put it together, the staff also decided the contest should have a theme rather than be open-ended. So as part of the rules we specified all stories had to be of the science fiction genre.

Once again, we didn’t know what to expect. We hoped to get at least three entries (since we wanted to award first, second and third place prizes.) Again, we weren’t disappointed. We ended up with nearly 20 submissions. And it wasn’t hard to pick the winner. It was penned by our most prodigious subscriber columnist, the seemingly indefatigable Ed Jackson. The story was Rad Fourteen, a gem of a tale about the relationship between a robot, its creator and the ensuing moral dilemma in which both found themselves. It was such a hit with the readers that Jackson went on to pen a whole series of “Rad” stories. For his effort, Jackson won 12 software titles from Videoland and three months service tacked on to his StarText subscription. Second place went to Jim Lombard for “The Blind Lead the Blind” and third place, as well as honorable mention, to the Gus Hertz family for “Shadowdancer” and “Computer Break-in.”

The winning entries were posted online, as well as most of the runners-up. I couldn’t help but marvel at how StarText was evolving from a basic online newspaper to something we never dreamed of when we launched two years previous. Beyond news and classifieds, we had tapped into rich reservoirs of subscriber-contributed content. It was apparent StarText had grown to be much more than a newspaper: We were a true online community.

Believing one good idea deserves another, the editors quickly followed up on the success of the short story contest with yet another interactive feature and played on the fiction theme: A chain novel. If our customers enjoyed writing fiction, why not give them a chance to write a novel together online? That September, we had almost 30 different subscribers volunteer to each write a chapter for a book we playfully titled, Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter, a spoof on the Jason movies so popular at the time. (Years later, there actually was a Jason movie by that name!)

We enlisted a Star-Telegram writer to pen the first chapter and get it started. Subscribers who volunteered each were assigned their own chapter and given 72 hours to complete it. While we didn’t end up with the Great American Novel, it certainly was a “novel” idea and created a lot of buzz among the customers. There was even tension as our aspiring writers killed off or wrote out characters introduced in earlier chapters. It wouldn’t be the last chain novel we would write together.

Between us and our subscribers, there was no shortage of ideas for tapping into the ever-expanding online audience. That doesn’t mean every idea was a good one. One that didn’t work so well was a service we called Share-A-Plane.

It all started when one of our customers, a private pilot, told us how convenient it would be if pilots had an easy way to tell other pilots where they were going. Just like car-pooling, enlisting one or more riders to a given destination could dramatically cut the cost of the trip. And there were thousands of private pilots in the immediate Fort Worth-Dallas area, the majority of whom either had computers or could easily afford one. So if we could create an electronic way for pilots to list trips, and a simple way pilots could contact each other, that should add up to a great business opportunity.

Joe and I both thought it had promise. It would be our first private “closed” application, run separately from StarText, and give us a second source of much-needed revenue. We already had email capability. The rest was little more than an enhanced bulletin board for the use of the pilots. So it wasn’t long before Joe and I were standing inside an aircraft hangar for a monthly meeting of a pilots’ group, extolling the virtues of the “share a plane” concept.

Not long after, “Share-A-Plane” was officially launched, complete with its own application for service and monthly fee (which I think was $12.95). It was just a matter of waiting for the thousands of pilots to join up. And waiting. And waiting some more. Even though it sounded great “on paper,” the market wasn’t apparently ready for a private pilot BBS. We quietly pulled the plug after only a few months of service. But it did teach us some valuable lessons. One, it’s hard to attract attention when you don’t have a marketing budget or plan. Two, with our limited resources, we had to take a much closer look at new ideas to grow the business. And those ideas were surfacing every day, generated in part by the staff and in ever-greater numbers from would-be cyber entrepreneurs.

In hindsight, probably the most interesting thing about ideas like “Share-A-Plane” was how our small staff of six could conceptualize and launch new businesses without the usual process of research reports, focus groups, pro formas and endless meetings. It was empowering to be fast on our feet and open to trying new things. If it failed, we stopped doing it and went on to something else, not exactly an accepted best business practice and light years from how newspapers were run.

Speaking of aviation, StarText became the nation’s first online service to feature flight schedules from Delta Air Lines on October 1. Danny Quillen, marketing director for Delta, said at the time: “Delta is very pleased to be affiliated with StarText as it is a quality product offered to the home computer user. We feel Delta flight schedules will be greatly utilized through StarText.” It wasn’t however the first flight information we featured. American Airlines flight data was part of the Tandy product launch two years earlier.

Up until now, our sights were firmly on the consumer sector, especially given Dow Jones and others like them had a lock on online business users. Still, there were local applications worth exploring. That September, we explored one. Coldwell Banker signed up accounts for all its area offices to use our electronic mail program. It was our first real business customer and the subject of a story printed in the September 10, 1984 edition of Dallas/Fort Worth Business.

Headlined, “StarText takes aim at business community,” reporter Mark Hendricks wrote:

“StarText, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s videotex arm, has signed up Coldwell Banker’s 17 Metroplex real estate offices and will court more business customers with a new version of its information service to be introduced next month. ‘We’re going to become a lot more aggressive,’ said Gerry Barker, manager of StarText.’”

It quoted Rod Martin, Coldwell Banker vice president and regional manager, who said “using the videotex system for electronic mail has proved an economical and effective solution to some of the problems of communicating among the offices that stretch from west of Fort Worth to east Dallas County.” Martin added: “This was a way we could accomplish it without having to get our own computer system and go to a lot of trouble and expense.” One of their primary uses for the service was sending out residential listing updates and coordinating relocation programs.

That success had us thinking what else could offer local businesses (a tempting market since many already had the necessary computers in place). There was the obvious – access to local news and financial data. But beyond that, we started thinking about higher speed service, private databases and better search features. But the most intriguing news nugget in the story was the reference to a “new version of its information service” we would be rolling out in October.

Internally, this was the project Joe called “Version 3.” It had been in the works for some time, over a year in fact. It would incorporate a wide range of improvements and changes, including a number of features on the “wish list” of both subscribers and editors. We quickly learned upgrades and improvements are the lifeblood of new technology products. Maybe the offline newspaper could stay the same for 200 years but ours couldn’t and expect to survive. The First Rule of Online is you can never stop re-inventing your product. Just as computers were getting faster, cheaper and smaller, we were running a marathon to meet the ever-increasing expectations of our customers.

Besides, we were getting a little weary of answering subscriber questions on when they could expect 1200 baud service and other enhancements: “It’ll be fixed in Version 3” was the official response (the staff even had a special T-shirt made just for Joe, emblazoned with “It will be fixed in Version 3” on the front).

True to his word, after months of work, mostly in his “off time,” Joe was ready to unveil Version 3 in November, 1984. We could hardly contain our excitement. In fact, the sheer importance of it prompted yet another innovation in a year of many “firsts.” But unlike the others, this one had nothing to do with online, interactivity or contests. For this one we turned our attention to a tried and true medium called newsprint.

For some time the staff had been vexed by how to keep our customers apprised of the many changes and improvements we were making in StarText. Posting the latest news on our “home page” was great but in truth, we still ran the risk of it going unnoticed, not to mention not everyone logs on to the service every single day. We needed something beyond email and beyond online announcements. By gosh, we needed a good old fashioned newsletter! That led us to creating a monthly publication we cleverly titled, StarText INK.

INK was a tab-sized newspaper, from eight to 12 pages, written and edited by StarText staffers, assembled in the Star-Telegram composing room, printed on newsprint at the Star-Telegram Printing and Distribution Center then mailed bulk rate to all our subscribers, with extras distributed to area computer stores and libraries. Having spent many years working alongside printers designing and making up print pages, I volunteered to be editor. Various staffers would write the stories and most had their own monthly column in their area of expertise. That included Joe, who I convinced to author a page one column called “Joe’s Place.” Besides his obvious technical and business acumen, Joe had a talent for expressing himself and I knew the subscribers would enjoy hearing first hand what Joe had in mind. We also used INK to spotlight subscriber columnists and the interesting people who were our customers. Every issue also included updates to our user guide and keyword list.

Knowing Version 3 would debut in November, we planned for Volume One, Number One to go out that month. What we didn’t fully understand or appreciate at the time was the writing, editing, designing and production was only a start. We were about to learn more about postal rules and regulations, mailing permits, labeling programs, zip code bundling, sacking requirements and dock procedures than any of us ever really wanted to know. Picture this scene:

A group of StarText editors, Joe, myself, Joe’s administrative assistant, all sitting on the floor in Joe’s office affixing labels to INKs in zip code order one at a time. Then rolling the INKs into bundles and placing them in authorized postal bags with the official zip code tags attached. The bags are loaded into my car for the trip to the post office where they are weighed, paperwork is done and we are charged under Bulk Rate Permit 1259. If nothing else, it was a great excuse for a pizza party.

Over the years we were able to streamline the process and even automate, with the help of Star-Telegram packaging, parts of it. But it was worth it. INK was an immediate hit with the subscribers and helped us as much as them to stay current with the latest news on StarText.

The headlines in that first edition said it all:

New features coming Nov. 26!

STARTEXT adding 1200 baud, new E-mail;
Price going to $9.95 a month beginning Dec. 1

While news of the new features had been anxiously awaited, the announcement of a price hike from $7.95 to $9.95 a month was no doubt not as welcomed. We had started business at $5 a month and now, some two and a half years later, the rate had doubled. But no one could question the StarText of December, 1984 bore little resemblance to the StarText of 1982. Subscribers to CompuServe, Dow Jones or others on the “pay by the minute” plan routinely ran up monthly bills of $50 and more. Everyone knew StarText was a “steal” by comparison and the rate hike went through with little grousing. Besides, in our typical “the customer is king” approach, we made everyone a one-time offer: Current subscribers could renew their subscription at the old $7.95 rate for up to one year if they acted by Nov. 30. The result was hundreds of annual renewals.

While clearly the addition of 1200 baud service grabbed the headlines, Version 3 offered a lot more in both features and functionality. Among them were new and improved email, support for true XON/XOFF (a feature especially important to our “tekkies”), separate databases for each stock exchange, easier access to classified ads and a fully customized interface allowing users to select their own function keys to best suit their computer or terminal. Taken together, it placed StarText at the forefront of text-based operating systems, a fact others were beginning to recognize.

In The Computer Phone Book: Guide to Using Online Systems, author Mike Cane had this to say about StarText:

“StarText doesn’t use menus. It’s a totally keyword-driven system. Type the keyword for the information you want and it will appear. . .StarText is the largest local system in the United States. It’s also the biggest bargain to be found in any online system that has a fee.” Cane also had praise for INK: “It’s the best publication I’ve seen an online system produce and contains the flavor that makes StarText a success as an online system.” In the revised edition one year later he was more specific: “StarText INK is full of chatty articles about what’s happening on the system and is a great (and welcome) change from the pompous Newspeak-type publications other pay systems insist on sending to their subscribers.”

It was probably how Cane summed us up that made us all particularly proud:

“Any Local System looking for success would do well to study StarText.”

Donth, in his initial “Joe’s Place,” wrote poignantly of what StarText had meant to him personally. His topic was creation – of the “little c” variety – “the things people do with their mind, hands and heart that result in something new being born into the world.”

He continued: “Creation is what StarText is all about and I stand in awe every time I take the time to think about it. We started with a group of very dedicated people creating first the idea, then the technology and finally the content … When my day gets hectic and the phone won’t stop ringing, I sneak into the computer room and go to the StarText modem rack and just watch it. The feeling is like nothing I can describe because what I see is not a row of red LED lights. I see people communicating with their world.”

Donth noted, very correctly I believe, that StarText isn’t about the technology, the staff or the founders who “brought this thing to life by the sheer will of our belief.” It instead is all about the subscribers whose columns, messages, email and caring are its lifeblood. “That’s the miracle of StarText.”

This was a side of Joe few had seen. It explained his deep passion and personal commitment to what we were doing, something we both shared.

Industry newsletters were likewise beginning to take notice of the online newspaper from Texas that was beginning to share the spotlight with its much bigger and better financed national competitors.

Paul Kagan Associates out of Carmel, California devoted most of its Oct. 26, 1984 edition to StarText and an examination of its business plan. Calling it a “success story,” Kagan went into detail outlining our business strategy (local focus, ease of use, low price) and then estimated operating expenses and revenue. Somewhat surprisingly, it told of a plan to market the Version 3 software to other newspapers at a price of $40,000 (which came as a surprise to me – Joe was obviously setting his sights on new targets). Our horizons seemed to be expanding every day.

Another well known analyst who began to track StarText around this time was Gary Arlen, whose "Information & Interactive Services Report" was something of a Bible for the online industry. We made our way into his “Box Score” section which tracked subscriber growth among all the major services. Arlen became even better known for his yearly giveaways that reminded all of us to not take ourselves so seriously. There was the famous videotex “wooden nickel,”; the pocket protector espousing “Videotex: It Isn’t Just for Nerds;” and my favorite – the computer-shaped eraser with the slogan, “Videotex: You Can’t Rub It Out.” There also were his lapel buttons that mocked the ever-present predictions for online success: “1990 – I Can’t Wait.” A few years later, that button became “2010 – I Can’t Wait.” In retrospect, it’s hard to tell whether all that hype hurt or helped. It did its share of both.

StarText continued to draw international visitors to Cowtown as well. For the second year in a row the Technology Transfer Institute in California, working with Japan’s Technology Transfer Association, sent a delegation of 11 Japanese business leaders to Fort Worth to learn more about what was driving our success. They were particularly intrigued by how our readers were using email. One delegate asked Joe if we would consider launching StarText in Japan. “That wasn’t the first place I had in mind,” he said.

As 1984 drew to a close, the staff used the second issue of INK to reflect on the previous 11 months. In my “From the Manager” column, I itemized a few of the highlights:

-- We started the year with 800 subscribers. Number 1000 came in February and we would end the year just over 1,300, a 67% increase.

-- We now had two VAX host computers; phone lines grew from 20 to 30; the staff grew from six to seven.

-- Version 3 was launched, the culmination of long hours of work by Donth and senior programmer Serge Stein.

Our subscribers, never shy, chimed in with some comments of their own.

“INK is a fantastic addition to an already outstanding product. If I could find a news publication as responsive as StarText I would seek a lifetime subscription.”

“I take and read The Dallas Morning News, the Star-Telegram and have been reading StarText for three months. If I had to give up two of the three I would keep StarText.”

Rich Casey, our first Dallas subscriber and at the time a technical writer for E-Systems in Dallas, had this to say in his StarText column, “Casey’s Place:”

“I believe that the Star-Telegram management made the proper decision to grow gradually, staff only as necessary and above all, listen to the subscriber. …The StarText staff, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, has put the “high touch” principle to work for them. Dozens of subscriber-written columns such as this one bring the technology down to the user level. There is a constant effort to listen and respond to user questions, ideas and concerns.”

It’s probably fitting that it was the subscribers themselves that put an exclamation point on the year when a group led by Julie Barrett and Larry Groebe teamed up to author the very first soap opera attempted on StarText (and maybe anywhere), titled “As the CRT Scrolls.” It would chronicle the romance and intrigue of two high tech companies in a mythical Silicon Valley town. The first installment would hit screens that December.