Prestel rings the changes as BT hangs up

Andrew Bibby
Saturday 02 April 1994 23:02

PRESTEL was British Telecom's great bird that never took flight. In 1979/80, when the videotex service was first launched, the potential seemed enormous.

'I think when BT started, they expected it to be a mass- market medium, like the telephone. Every household would have one,' says Michael Holland, who now heads Prestel.

Today there are millions of users of telephone-based videotex (the generic name for viewdata services such as Prestel) in France and a smaller but growing market in Germany. But in Britain, despite Prestel's headstart and semi-official status, BT admits it has run out of ideas.

Mr Holland is blunt: 'I think from BT's point of view it has probably been a turkey.'

He should know; he now has the unenviable job of trying to put right what BT got wrong. Prestel, in its original BT form, ceased to exist at the end of March. On 1 April a new company took over the remaining subscribers (about 30,000), the hardware and the rambling edifice of information 'pages' to launch New Prestel.

He is confident the venture will find a market. 'BT is not a publisher or a value-added network, which is what Prestel really is,' he says. 'In 1990, when they changed Prestel's focus from a household to business market, BT had already strategically abandoned it. In the past three years they've done very little marketing.'

Mr Holland is hoping to pitch Prestel at both the smaller business user and the home computer enthusiast. The second group may welcome the return of the on-line Micronet club (killed off by BT at the end of the 1980s), complete with chat lines and open discussion areas. The competition, however, is fierce: CompuServe, the US leisure on-line service, has been marketing itself heavily in Britain and now claims about 30,000 subscribers, while computer buffs also have the home- grown CIX service.

Mr Holland promises that New Prestel will be innovative. For example, a real-time tele- betting service is under consideration. Meanwhile, business users will continue to have access on a pay-as-you-go basis to commercial on-line databases such as FT Profile, Kompass and ICC. 'I think company information is an undersold part of Prestel. All small businesses would check the creditworthiness of new suppliers or customers if they knew they could,' Mr Holland says.

New Prestel will carry CitiService, which offers real-time share prices fed from the Stock Exchange's Seaq system and from the futures markets (Ceefax and ITV's Teletext offer a much cheaper route to share prices, but at the cost of a few minutes' updating delay).

New Prestel is also hoping to develop on-screen banking services. But the history here is not happy: the pioneering Nottingham Building Society dropped its HomeLink service in 1991, while a year earlier the Bank of Scotland had introduced access to the Home and Office Banking Service through its own network rather than the more expensive Prestel.

But Mr Holland argues that the early experiments were ahead of their time, and talks of wooing the larger high-street banks to New Prestel.

His first job may be to bring back some of the on-line services recently dropped by BT. A directory inquiry database is an obvious place to start (Prestel users can access French telephone numbers but not UK ones). Improved travel information would also be a strong selling point; New Prestel says it is coming.

Also pivotal is a simpler way of using the medium. The complex menu systems are scheduled for overhaul and Mr Holland promises a Prestel windows software package later this year, offering an icon-based search facility.

The New Prestel annual subscription remains pounds 100 plus VAT, with access charges staying at 8p a minute (standard) and 3p a minute (cheap rate).

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