Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Couch Potatoes on the Verge

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Couch Potatoes on the Verge

Article excerpt

THE future isn't what it used to be, and probably never will be. Remember the picturephones on display at the world's fairs of the 1960s? Being able to see people as well as hear them when we talked on the phone was to be part of the wave of the future. Of course, there would be times when you wouldn't want to be seen, and then you could turn the picture off....

Somehow picturephones never caught on; instead, we've had things like call-waiting service and answering machines - relatively lower-tech and much more useful.

So it has gone. Progress into the future is less of a relentless forward march than a meander, a stream quirkily changing course. Remember quadraphonic stereo? Citizens' band radio?

Videotex may be the picturephone of the 1990s. Videotex allows people to call up a range of information services on the screens of their home computers - shopping, weather, news.

As recently as 1986, some perfectly respectable prognosticators were forecasting that videotex services would be available in up to 20 million homes by this year. In fact, the number of households with videotex today is still under 1 million.

The conventional wisdom is that videotex is a technology in search of a market. Much of what videotex provides is already available through other channels, including the Sears catalogue. So it's hard to argue that videotex fills a need. (Of course, in the early days, it wasn't immediately clear that telephones in the home would fill a need, either.)

If a new technology doesn't fill a perceived need, an alternative might be to spread it around anyway, to see what happens when some sort of critical mass is reached.

This is what has happened with the biggest videotex success stories, the Minitel system in France. Telecom, the national telecommunications agency, trying to bring the French people into the computer age, hit upon the idea of providing subscribers with a small terminal giving access to a computerized telephone directory. Minitel started out as an alternative to a continuously obsolescing paper directory and has gone on to a certain fame as a sort of electronic lonely hearts' club, with people spending hours every month in extensive computer correspondence. …

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