Wednesday, July 29, 2009

BISON -- It's Not a Buffalo

(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)

BISON: Belo Information Systems On-line

While StarText was barely in the planning stages, 30 miles to the east The Dallas Morning News was busy deploying its own online service. In 1981, Belo, the parent company of The Dallas Morning News, launched the service it called BISON – the acronym for Belo Information Systems On-Line Network. If it wasn’t the first, it certainly was among the first local online services launched by a U.S. newspaper.

BISON had its genesis in 1980, when Gean W. Holden was hired early that year as Director of Corporate Research/Technology and head of Belo Informations Systems, a division of the A.H. Belo Company. Holden wasted little time in putting the wheels in motion to create a consumer videotex service. In a memo prepared for the 1980 annual report, Holden detailed the steps that led to BISON’s creation.

In March of 1980, Holden held early discussions with BISON’s partners, Texas Instruments, Sammons Cable and Dow Jones, another pioneer in distributing financial information online. Holden had just returned from the Viewdata Conference in London, where he was energized by what he saw and heard. He called it “the best conference I’ve ever been to because there was so much to be learned.” (The year before, the Britain Post Office launched Prestel, an early online service streamed via telephone lines to dedicated terminals. It had been in development since the mid-70s.)

The partners reconvened in early April at the TI Corporate Engineering Center to hammer out a proposed budget for the launch of the “Park Cities Experiment.” Park Cities, an affluent Dallas suburb, was chosen as the test market for a new Sammons “data retrieval network” that would include access to stories from The Dallas Morning News.

A story published in the Morning News on May 16, 1980, under the headline, “Sammons unveils special cable network,” provided details on what Park Cities residents could expect.

Quoting from the article:

“Sammons Communications Inc. said Thursday it will offer 200 of its Park Cities Cable Television subscribers access to an elaborate data retrieval network, beginning this summer.

“Dow Jones & Co. Inc. of Princeton, N.J., publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and Belo Information Systems, a division of the A.H. Belo Corp. of Dallas, which publishes The Dallas Morning News, also will participate. They will supply subscribers with business and financial information, news and other data via the home computer access system.

“Merrill Lynch & Co. of New York will join the experiment to provide brokerage information.

“Jim Whitson, president of Sammons Communications, announced the agreement in Dallas, along with Gean Holden, director of Research and Technology for Belo Corp., and William L. Dunn, vice president and general manager of Dow Jones.

“The Sammons Park Cities project will be the first anywhere to involve large numbers of cable television subscribers access to information banks in several cities from private home terminals.

“ ‘Our idea is to offer a nearly limitless data retrieval capability with our cable TV system,’ Whitson said. ‘By adding home terminals, a keyboard and a screen, the cable system becomes an electronic newspaper and financial encyclopedia. This is the kind of 2-way cable systems most companies have only thought of in terms of the future.’

“In structuring the Park Cities data retrieval system, Sammons will follow the format of a recently successful Dow Jones project involving individual access by four families and two businesses in the Las Colinas development in Irving (Texas).

“Participants will be linked by cable and satellite through their computer terminals with a central Dow Jones computer at South Brunswick, N.J. and the Belo Information Systems computer in Dallas.”

It continued:

“For Belo Information Systems, the project will be the first experiment with individual, consumer access of data bases. Holden said information available to the system from
The Dallas Morning News will include the current day’s news, stories, sports, weather and restaurant and entertainment guides.

“Belo Information Systems also is expected to begin experimenting with classified advertising, which will be accessible to the home terminal. A typical local problem that could be solved with a classified access system would be house hunting.

“With a computer terminal, the user would feed the system a variety of information, detailing the basic requirements, _location, number of bedrooms and price range, Within seconds a list of homes for sale, fitting the described requirements, would appear on that screen.”

Three decades later, that’s exactly how many of us do it.

By May, the pieces were falling into place. The staff for BISON began to take shape as personnel were interviewed and hired. Offices were established at The Registry, an upscale Dallas office complex on LBJ Freeway. Arrangements were made for the installation of the TI equipment. BISON would be hosted on Tandem Nonstop computers, considered the Cadillac of its time.

At the same time, meetings were held with local automobile dealers to gauge interest in taking their business online. Holden comments, “After two attempts that didn’t work out very well, we took the terminal out to several dealers for on-site demonstrations and that proved to be very positive.” There were also discussions with the phone company about placing the white pages online. The conclusion: “It would not be cheap and would not be easy, but it could be done.”

All the staff (by one estimate 35 in all) were in place by the end of July and getting familiar with the TI hardware and software. In August, communications links between downtown and The Registry offices were in place and work was proceeding on organizing the database for the Park Cities experiment Later that month, BISON got its first unveiling at demonstrations for executives at Sammons and the Belo Board.

September was devoted to debugging and tweaking the software. Two DEC terminals were installed in Morning News newsroom to accommodate data transmissions to The Registry. The scene was set for the impending launch of the Park Cities experiment the following month.

The Park Cities Experiment went live Oct. 19, 1980. But, in a story all too familiar to new media pioneers, its debut wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. “Just before we began the service,” writes Holden, “we installed the new disks, everything crashed and we lost the database.” They were able to install the TI terminals in the homes and “we were able to get the service going despite all the problems.”

That same month, BISON was showcased at online shows in San Francisco (Information Industries Association) and San Diego (LINK Conference), where people were “amazed that we were able to get the system on the air in such a short period of time.”

The Park Cities Experiment concluded on Dec. 19, 1980.

Writing in the first annual report after the company became publicly traded in December, 1981, Joe Dealey, chairman of the board and chief executive officer, noted:

“Through Belo Information Systems Division, the Company is engaged in interactive electronic distribution of information to the home. In 1981 the Company spent almost $1 million in this new venture, an increase of approximately $670,000 over the prior year.”

In June, 1982, one month after the launch of StarText in Fort Worth, Belo suspended BISON. The 1982 annual report had this to say:

“In June, 1982, we suspended the test phase of Belo Informations Systems On-Line Network (BISON), our home information subscription service. This program was introduced in August of 1981 as a research and development effort to determine the technical dimensions, market potential and user acceptance of interactive home videotex. Although the BISON system was a technical success, we concluded that the commercial market for interactive home videotex systems is not sufficiently developed to justify the continuation of significant expenditures. However, we believed we learned a great deal from the BISON project which will serve us well in the future. We will maintain a minimal staff to keep abreast of technical and market developments in this field and provide us flexibility to re-enter this market once the videotex market materializes."

Many years later one former Belo manager characterized BISON this way: "We would have done as well digging a hole, dumping in $3 million and setting it on fire."

Regardless of the outcome, you have to give them credit for jumping in the pool first. The Cue Cat? That's another story.