A favorite Monty Python sketch features a chap who is trying to return a dead parrot he has inadvertently purchased from a sleazy pet shop.
"No, no!" the pet shop owner insists, "the parrot isn't dead, he's just asleep."
The chap proceeds to yell at the parrot, which has been nailed to its perch, and then rips it out of the cage and bangs the stiffened corpse on the counter. "You stunned it!" the pet shop man protests.
Inflamed with righteous wrath, the chap shrieks that this poor bird has kicked the bucket, folded its umbrella, ceased to be, joined the choir invisible. This, the man declares, is a late parrot.
As if to prove that life imitates parody, two of the nation's leading newspaper companies finally have conceded what many of us have known for years, that videotext is the dead parrot of personal computerdom.
A subject of much media hype and hoopla, videotext was seen as the way newspapers could enter the brave new world of electronic home services. Essentially, videotext let people with personal computers or special terminals retrieve pages of text from a central data bank to display on their computer or TV screens. Videotext quite literally was an "electronic newspaper," and companies such as Knight-Ridder and Times-Mirror invested years and tens of millions of dollars to make a market in it.
To their horror, they discovered that people didn't want to read the news on their computer screens. Apparently, the newspaper is a lousy metaphor around which to build an electronic information service.
Nevertheless, Times-Mirror -- owner of the Los Angeles Times, among other newspapers -- and Knight-Ridder -- owner of the Miami Herald, among others -- have insisted along along that videotext was alive and well, despite a minuscule customer base for their respective efforts.
"No, no!" said the newspapers, "videotext isn't dead, it's just sleeping."
But consumers -- especially personal-computer owners -- know a dead parrot when they see, and smell, one. No amount of money, brains and manpower can turn a dead parrot into a Maltese Falcon.
Between them, Times-Mirror and Knight-Ridder lost approximately $50 million in their aborted bids to hatch a profitable videotext enterprise.
There's a delicious irony here. Even as these two Fortune 500 behemoths are trying to wipe off their red ink, literally thousands of low-budget electronic bulletin boards have blossomed all over the country. Sales of modems continue to skyrocket. More and more people are exploring interactive personal-computer networking and telecommunications that put videotext offerings to shame.
What's going on here?
It should be obvious. Videotext never let users do what they really want to do -- interact and communicate. With videotext, interaction was on the level of electronically turning a page. It was a dull, listless format.
Worse, interpersonal communication was way down the list of things you could do on a videotext system. With bulletin boards, Compuserve and The Source, you're encouraged to chat with people and become electronic pen pals. Indeed, communication is the main use of these systems. In some, there is a sense of community created through the technology; with videotext, there was the gnawing sense that you were just another customer.
How could presumably bright managers from presumably well-run companies deliver such a flawed service?
I have a reason. Look over the decade-plus history of videotext in the United States and you'll find that the newspapers were very frightened that phone companies or other telecommunications firms would offer "electronic yellow pages" online and steal vital classified advertising revenue. Consequently, newspapers plunged into videotext as a defensive business maneuver, rather than viewing it as a potentially powerful new medium with unique strengths. These newspaper managers were more concerned with using the technology to preserve their advertising revenue than to serve a customer base and build a community of users.
There's an important lesson in this. One has to examine the motivations of companies entering the electronic information-service market. Covidea, Trintex and other so-called videotext ventures still in existence are owned by banks, retailers and computer companies. Obviously, the banks are pushing whole banking services; the retailers want electronic home shopping.
They soon may wrestle with the same agonies Times-Mirror and Knight-Ridder have gone through -- it's not enough to offer the electronic counterpart to an an existing service. There has to be some vital reason to do it on a home-computer network. There has to be genuine value added.
With bulletin boards, the added value is obvious. You can meet and communicate with interesting people in interesting ways that are quite different from using the mail or the phone.
This past generation of videotext technology didn't offer real value for the price. The new generation of interactive PC networks has much more potential. If the people who run those networks fail to achieve it, this column is ready to run another obituary.