Prestel has used a three-pronged strategy to transfer all its information service on to the Net.
Prestel, the pioneering British viewdata service, is moving away from its proprietary system on to the World Wide Web, following in the footsteps of Microsoft Network and CompuServe. Viewdata was the brainchild of Sam Fedida of the Post Office Research Centre, whose idea of linking television sets to computers via the telephone network predated the Web and the Network Computer by more than 20 years.

Today's Prestel has developed a three-pronged business strategy. "The first step is to be an Internet access provider," says Michael Holland, managing director of Prestel Online. "Then to take our content to the Net, and be a database development consultant."

So what went wrong with the original Prestel? "The technology was very slow," explains Holland. "Seventy-five baud instead of 28,800. It was expensive, and complicated. A telephone engineer had to come along and plug you in. It was high value information, but you couldn't save anything."

BT was not as committed to this new technology as its counterpart over the Channel, which successfully launched the Minitel system. "France Telecom got the French government to ban TV teletext," Holland points out. "They priced directory enquiries on the phone very highly and made it free on their Minitel service. Most of all, they gave away six million terminals, which BT never did."

By 1994, however, when BT sold Prestel to private investors, the service had found its niche in business to business information provision, such as company or personal credit-checking, audited financials, marketing information, and real-time stock exchange prices and deals, Prestel's biggest area.

"You can look things up and see how many trades there have been in Wickes or ICI this morning," says Holland. "You can suddenly see '11.03: 10,000 shares sold @457p', so it's quite exciting. Well, to some people."

Prestel Online's dial-up network has been created through an arrangement with the Internet backbone provider Planet Online. "It's the fastest access in this country," Holland says. "We've done some speed trials, which are being audited and will be published in a couple of weeks' time."

If nothing else, the old Prestel was content-rich, and its Net successor is bringing out its first suite of Internet products in September. This will feature a mixture of the current proprietary services and a direct- dial bulletin board, from which all the London shares and gilts data can be sent down the line in compressed format.

As part of its database consultancy, Prestel Online has just built a new in-house database with a Web front-end for What Car? magazine, so drivers can select their top 10 cars based on performance, comfort, safety, etc. "We're involved in intranet development with Microsoft," Holland says, but will not elaborate.

What has this phoenix learned from the relative failure of its predecessor? "You need to focus on what you are, and not try to be all things to all people," says Holland. "It's amazingly easy to sell things to do with the Internet, and amazingly difficult with those that are based on the past."

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