ViewTron – The Future Arrived in 1983

In the past couple days AT&T pulled a couple videos from their archives and posted the to Youtube. Here are a couple promo videos for a new service that Knight-Ridder and AT&T launched in the early 1980s. Viewtron was a computer like gadget that you could plug into your TV and then, via a dial-up modem, go online and shop, check your email, or do other things we now take for granted. Some are calling this an early form of the internet, but I think it more closely resembles the early and middle years of AOL.

The device itself more closely resembled a dumb terminal than it did a computer. It seems to have been pitched only as a way to get online, so it's not clear if it could do anything else.

This looked to be an awfully closed platform from the users' viewpoint. You could go to one of the numerous media, retail, or business pages, but there didn't seem to be any way for the end users to get online themselves.

Viewtron launched in 1983. At its peak it had around 15 thousand users. Knight-Ridder and AT&T reportedly sank over $50 million into ViewData, the tech startup that developed the platform, before pulling the plug in 1986.

But they did have ambitious plans. ViewData had also developed apps so owners of other computer systems could access the online platform. At its peak it had 15 thousand pages you could visit, and they had plans to expand to as many 100,000 pages.

Depending on how you measure it, they planned to have enough content online that you would now be able to fit on to a DVD.


About Nate Hoffelder (11466 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

4 Comments on ViewTron – The Future Arrived in 1983

  1. Wow, ViewTron even sounds like the 80’s! All I can think about is my son’s toys- “Form Voltron Lion Now!”

  2. Looks like they had Minitel on the brain:

  3. Christ, you’d never of this before now? I was covering this shit in my first full-time job back in the 1980s! I was screaming back then too that it wouldn’t work. They were all walled gardens, from The Source and CompuServe to Prestel in England to Telidon in Canada and AT&T even went and ignored what everyone else did — how American! — and created NAPLPS, the North American Presentation-Level Protocol. The guy who created the company I worked for knew the personal computer would crush all of these, but he was very happy to take their money for consulting fees. I should have learned that much from him — STFU and take the money from the suckers who want to give it over. (That sounds like he was a con man; he wasn’t. But he also knew they were all hellbent on doing what they planned to do anyway… so he was there to try to nudge them in the proper direction. Not that any of them listened!) Minitel? Minitel was a State-run monopoly that at least had the sense to allow small independent vendors inside. The rest of the stiffs in the world — including the German Bildschirmtext (run by the national post office monopoly — the PTT) — all thought they were Important and little people were there to take what they were selling. The exact opposite of what the Internet has shown them is success.

    There, Nate. In one para I’ve given you a night’s lookup on Wikipedia to try to catch up on a small fraction of what I lived through.

    • Oh, and this will slay you! The asynchronous speed of the videotex services such as Viewtron and the rest. It was 1200bps *down* and only 40 or so bps *up*. In other words, it was planned for speed from those *feeding* you their crap and dis-optimized for feeding stuff *into* it unless you were a corporation who could afford a DEC mini and the software that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

      God Bless the Internet!!

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