By GERRY BARKER
(Originally published July, 2009)
It may not exist on the Chinese calendar, but by all counts 1985 was The Year of New Products for StarText.
While we pushed out a steady stream of upgrades, improvements and enhancements on a fairly regular basis, 1985 saw the largest number of "blockbuster" products make their debut.
The energy and excitement of watching StarText take root and grow the year before carried over and fueled the staff's optimism as the New Year started. All the leading indicators were pointing "up." StarText had become a real business, earning real money, inching ever closer to that magic "breakeven" mark -- something no other local online service had yet achieved.
It seemed like a good time to get the staff and subscribers together for an old-fashioned Town Hall Meeting. And that's just what we did.
We sent out an invite to all our 1,300-plus customers to join us January 16 at Tarrant County Junior College South Campus to meet the staff, ask questions and meet each other. More than 100 attended. These periodic staff-subscriber meetings were successful on several levels, not the least of which were the great ideas we gathered for improving the service.
Cardinal rule of business: If you want to make your product better, listen to your customers. It certainly was a major contributor to our success.
On other fronts, we introduced what StarText Director Joe Donth described as "our first true videotex service going beyond our news and information products" -- STARMAIL, our own electronic mail system.
Field-tested in Version 2, STARMAIL was greatly improved and expanded in Version 3. As you might expect, it was an immediate hit with the customers. In fact, throughout the entire history of online, from the BBS to the Internet, nothing has quite matched the "killer app" status of E-mail.
Wisely, Joe knew the downside of launching a new product that could become "too popular." Why? The StarText business model was built around how many customers a single phone line/modem could support. Other than staff, the major expense items for running StarText were the host computer, multiplexers, modems and phone lines. You wanted to have enough incoming lines to handle peak traffic load (6 pm to 10 pm) and avoid customers getting a busy signal. That ratio, proven over time, was 72 subscribers per phone line.
It sounds like a lot, but remember the gating factor is simultaneous usage. It isn't often all your lines are connected at the same time. Normally someone is hanging up as someone else is dialing in. If we started getting reports of busy signals, we knew it time to add another line.
Realizing STARMAIL could become our most popular offering (with both private party and business applications), Joe set some limits for its use. The first 100 messages a month would be free (as well as any messages sent to the staff), part of everyone's $9.95 subscription. The next 150 would cost a dime each. Anything over 250 would be a quarter each.
Based on activity logs, that meant STARMAIL would be free for over 95% of our subscribers, a fact that pleased Joe. He was very committed to keeping the value proposition high.
In the January edition of INK, I opined on the topic of "online advertising" in my "From the Manager" column, suggesting videotex offered a "revolutionary change" for advertisers. "Through videotex, ads can be directed to a very select audience, or audience segment. . .for the first time, an advertiser could know exactly how many times their ad was looked at based on keyword usage."
The idea was right, but it would be a long time before advertisers would begin shifting their ad budgets to digital in a serious way.
Besides distributing news, StarText also made the news on occasion. The local NBC affiliate, Channel 5, did a story on the online soap opera launched in late 1984, "As the CRT Scrolls." StarText was also featured on "Computer Corner," the long-running technology show hosted by Walt Zwirko on Channel 8, the local ABC station (affiliated with our Metroplex rival, The Dallas Morning News). Once again, we got more coverage in competing media than our own.
The other big news in January? We announced the winners of our Christmas Card Contest. The idea was create a Christmas card using just ASCII text characters. We got 26 entries and the winners were: First Place - Jack Smith, Second Place - Rich Casey; Third Place - David Duke.
In February, our latest new product came from a somewhat unlikely source: The Internal Revenue Service. As part of a government research and development project exploring the feasibility of offering tax publications online, the IRS made available a "Videotex Tax Library," comprised of 70 different tax publications. (Almost 25 years later, it seems downright primitive not to be able to obtain this kind of information any other way.)
At the same time, the Fort Worth Police Dept. started testing the computer waters by updating accident locations and crime statistics, as well as hosting a column called "COPS," which fielded questions from readers. Our "two-way dialog" was expanding to include the the civic and government sectors. We even thought about inviting the mayor of Fort Worth to host a column that invited questions from the public.
Looming on the horizon was among the biggest, most ambitious, high-profile projects StarText would ever tackle.
1985: Part Two
When May, 1985 rolled around, StarText hit another milestone: It turned three on May 3.
As StarText Director Joe Donth noted in "Joe's Place" (his monthly column in StarText INK), "Amazing! Three years! ... In many respects, the past three years (and before) has been like a marriage. At least in the respect of the amount of time that I and the staff have put into this venture we call StarText."
In that same issue we asked subscribers, many who had been with us almost from the start, to reflect on the past three years. Here's a sampling of what they told us:
From Le Roy Thompson, Jr, ID 1616: "The StarText of today bears little resemblance to the StarText of April, 1983, when I first subscribed. The people of StarText were then and still are the secret of a successful operation. By successful, I mean satisfied customers. The management and staff's responsiveness to problems and suggestions is unparalleled by any other organization I know of. You continue to improve StarText and make it more interesting."
From Suzanne Stone, ID 1634: "My husband Robert was the 127th subscriber to StarText, back in December of 1982 or January of 1983. . . The 'old' StarText seems like a real dinosaur in comparison to the service we now enjoy. It seems really funny to me now that when the E-mail service was first announced I was a bit skeptical, thinking 'I don't know any other subscribers. Who in the world would I ever send a letter to?' That was several hundred letters ago. Anyway, StarText has come quite a long way from its beginnings and I really enjoy being a subscriber."
From Charles Gill, ID 1296: "As one of the earliest members of StarText, and having the honor of being the first Dallas subscriber, I want to wish a Happy Birthday (3 years) to StarText and to the people who made it happen. I recall way back when ... I fired up my little Timex computer and called long distance to Ft. Worth and my modem answered the StarText modem and I had a choice of requesting WORLD NEWS or WORLD NEWS. That's about all there was ... I guess it was a good thing too, because if there had been more to choose and read ... my phone bill would be more than I could afford. ... before I come to a close I just want to say I predict StarText has just begun to grow and someday in the not too distant future will become a giant."
By the way, every subscriber was issued an ID number and a password which they used to access StarText. A low number meant you were among the first subscribers, which became a point of pride for many. And a reason to keep renewing. If you let your subscription lapse you could loose your number. For the record, the first number on the system was Joe's -- ID 1009. Mine was the second number issued, ID 1018.
In that same issue of INK I too reflected on the previous three years, using the occasion to wax philosophical as I acknowledged the people who had made StarText possible, not the least of whom was Joe.
"I remember one conversation ... in which Joe lamented how few people would ever set foot inside the halls of the magnificent library at Harvard. All that knowledge ... that only a select few would ever share. But one day in the future, systems like StarText would change all that. We could place that knowledge within the reach of everyone. Talk about an Information Revolution!"
Less than a decade later, the World Wide Web helped us realize that dream.
The other big news that month was the announcement we were replacing the metro lines with local line service in Dallas. By locating a multiplexer and modem bank in Dallas, we could both save money and increase the number of lines serving our Dallas customer base.
Subscriber-wise, our count at mid-year stood at 1,653, a jump of almost 25% from where we ended 1984.
Editor Christine Russell was soliciting writers to pen our second chain novel, which would kick off in June. You'll recall our literary volunteers are each assigned to write a chapter, pretty much guaranteeing the narrative will move forward in totally unpredictable ways.
Another big piece of news: We hired a new programmer named Larry Groebe. You should know Larry, a recent newlywed, is my "partner in crime" for this StarText history project. He promises to show up here with more regularity in the future.
Now, what about that "big project" that was "looming on the horizon?"
1985: Part Five
"1985: A Year to Remember."
That was the big headline from the November edition of StarText INK, which also marked the one-year anniversay of our monthly printed newsletter.
By just about every measure, it had been "a special year," as StarText Director Joe Donth wrote in his December column, "Joe's Place."
"The year 1985 has been a good year for StarText," Joe wrote. "We started the year with a little over 1,300 subscribers and we will finish with over 1,900 of you actively participating in our little family."
Close to a 50 percent increase. That was definitely cause for celebration.
There were also all the new product launches and announcements, which included one more in October: American Airlines flight schedules. Subscribers could access information on all arriving and departing American flights at DFW International Airport. StarText now had flight info for both American and Delta Airlines (Delta schedules had been available for over a year).
HomeBanking, announced in June, was undergoing final testing in advance of its public debut in January. There were more than 150 individual screens that had to be checked and re-checked, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes processes and programs that made it work. It was like launching a whole new StarText in terms of complexity.
Staff-wise, we added a programmer, Larry Groebe, which meant we had seven full-time employees: Office manager Karen Bynum, news editor Christine Russell, copy editors Andy Kesling and Mike Holland, weekend editor Christy Jones and myself. Joe served as both StarText Director and IT Director for the Star-Telegram.
For the third year in a row, we celebrated the holidays by kicking off another Christmas Card Contest, but this time added a new wrinkle: An online Santa Claus feature. We gave Santa his own email address so subscribers could expedite their wish lists directly to his PC at the North Pole.
In the years ahead, our "online Santa" would evolve into one of our most endearing features through the efforts of a retired subscriber who agreed to play the role of Santa and answer the "Santa mail" from subscribers. Both young and old shared their wishes and dreams; many were heart-warming -- some were heart-breaking. But just like the loveable St. Nick of "Miracle on 34th Street," our Santa always seemed to have just the right answer.
We never revealed who Santa was but for the record, his name was Paul Conant. When I paid Paul a visit, I discovered he even looked the part with a kindly smile and white beard. Mrs. Santa --er, Mrs. Conant, even had a plate of warm cookies to greet us.
As the year drew to a close, Joe floated a new marketing idea: The $4.95 subscription. Our existing "Free Trial Password" program was popular (prospective customers could request a password that would give them five free StarText sessions to try us out). But the free trial didn't include features like E-mail and you might burn two or three sessions just setting up your communications program.
For $4.95, you could have seven days of service to use as much as like. Would-be subscribers could sample the full range of our basic offerings and the seven days didn't start until your you activated the account. Response was positive and creating the "Seven Days of StarText" program would be one of my next assignments.
Prolific columnist Ed Jackson, winner of our first Short Story Contest with "Rad Fourteen," graced us with a fascinating sequel, "Alias Rad Fifteen," which appeared in the December issue of INK. Much more about Mr. Jackson to come in future postings.
In that same issue, Joe summed up things nicely:
"As I said, 1985 has been a good year. Your contributions have made that possible. I look forward to 1986 with confidence and an unbridled enthusiasm that we, together, will continue to grow in subscribers, content, features and new services. More importantly, we will continue to grow as each of us add our support and commitment to making StarText not only better than the rest, but so special we continue to be in a class by ourselves. Merry Christmas and God Bless."
Christmas Card Contest Entries
1985: Part Three
The headline in the June, 1985 issue of StarText INK touted the big announcement:
"StarText, InterFirst to offer banking."
That certainly started Year Four with a bang. Quoting from the story:
"Friday afternoon, May 31, Phillip Meek, president and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and James Perry, chairman and chief executive officer of InterFirst Bank Fort Worth, signed a joint agreement to offer the first bank-at-home service available in the Southwest."
The service, dubbed simply as HomeBanking, would debut in the Fall.
While paying bills and transacting banking business electronically is now just part of the daily routine for many, in 1985 not so much. And while it would do most of the things you would expect it to -- pay bills, transfer funds, show your balance -- it did something that electronic banking services don't do even today: Maintain the "float" that goes with writing checks the old-fashioned way.
Research had shown that was the single biggest objection to giving up checks: Losing the time it takes for the check to clear. So HomeBanking would calculate the standard "float" for each payee and incorporate that delay before withdrawing the funds from your account. Pretty slick.
Meek commented that "What we are particularly excited about is that it preserves 'float' for the banking customer. To our knowledge, no other home banking service offers this significant advantage."
StarText subscribers could add HomeBanking for an additional $1 a month (a total of $10.95); non-StarText customers would pay $6 a month for HomeBanking alone. Those fees covered the first 30 transactions, with additional transactions billed at 15 cents each. The savings in stamps and envelopes covered those fees and then some.
Gary Mabra, InterFirst Fort Worth VP and Cashier, noted a survey of bank customers with home computers showed 50 perecent would be interested in a home banking product.
To mark the occasion, an S-T photograher was on hand to capture the historic moment. Above is that picture, featuring, in front: James Perry, InterFirst CEO and Chairman, left, and Phillip Meek, Star-Telegram president and publisher. In the back, left to right, was yours truly (sorry about the hair but it was the Eighties so give me a break), Joe Donth, Eddie Stamps, Gary Mabra and Mike Hyatt from InterFirst.
While a lot of the groundwork had been laid, much was left to do before you could "open the bank with a touch of a button," as the red promotion piece declared. Newly-hired programmer Larry Groebe would be devoting a good chunk of his time to that project in the coming months.
While partnering with a major bank to launch a high-profile product was exhilerating, it also was important strategically. We saw a need to grow StarText beyond a news and information service. Email was a step in that direction. Transaction-based services, like HomeBanking, was another. Diversifying would not only open StarText to new audiences, but also potential new revenue streams.
On other fronts, we announced our second subscriber user meeting of the year, which would be hosted by the Infomart, an expansive "temple to technology" off Stemmons Expressway whose architecture inspired one pundit to call it "the world's largest reflective wedding cake."
Besides housing offices for many of the world's leading technology companies, it also played host on weekends to dozens of computer user groups, including a StarText SIG (Special Interest Group).
July saw the beginning of the second chain novel, titled "CITYWARS -- Quest for the Life Planet." Like the first novel subscribers wrote together the previous summer ("Friday the 13th - The Final Chapter"), the premise was totally plausible:
"Fort Worth, Dallas and dozens of other city-ships escaped a nuclear catastrophe on their mother planet," wrote editor Christine Russell. "The city-ships battle for mining rights to precious minerals; all ships are in search of an Eden-like planet that contains all life-substaining minerals."
Chapter One was penned by the Star-Telegram's Pultizer Prize-winning reporter, Mark Thompson, who set the action in the 5th Quadrant, a "cloudy, purple environment with limited visibility" in the year 2462. Kind of like present-day LA, I would imagine.
Another market where we expended a lot of time and energy was schools.
As computers began to proliferate in homes, schools also saw the benefits of integrating them into classrooms and libraries. Educators were already making use of information aggregators, like CompuServe and The Source, to retrieve stories and documents electronically. The problem in making their use more widespread was cost. Paying by the minute added up fast.
Enter StarText, with its flat rate, all-you-can-eat model for $9.95 a month.
While the information may not have been as broad or deep as you could find in the big national databases, it was pretty much the only source for local news and a great source for news of all kinds. Any computer or even a "dumb" terminal could access it. Teachers could even take advantage of features like e-mail. And for longstanding programs like Newspapers in Education (NIE), it provided extra value and a great complement to the print product.
One of the first and most enthusiastic supporters of StarText was the Richardson Independent School District, located in Richardson, an upscale city north of Dallas. They pioneered its use at every grade level, largely through the efforts of their computer consultant, Frank Piasecki.
Pisasecki talked about its use in the July issue of INK:
"As a research tool, StarText offers a wealth of incredibly timely information on a wide range of topics. . . while also offering students increased computer literacy awareness."
Altogether, StarText was in use at more than 200 Metroplex schools and was popular for home schoolers as well, something that became another point of pride.
In fact, the next "big announcement" we were about to make was right in line with schools and scholarship.
1985: Part Four
Measured by attendance,the StarText subscriber user meeting held July 20 at the Dallas Infomart turned out to be our biggest ever. There were over 200 people present, which percentage-wise was more than 10% of our subscription base.
Other than the 30-mile trek from Fort Worth, the location was ideal. The Infomart was designed to showcase technology -- seven stories of glass and steel with multiple meeting rooms. Plus every major computer club in the Metroplex converged there one Saturday a month. It even had a food court.
For the staff who gave up their Saturdays to be there, it was gratifying to see such a high interest level from our customers. Editor Christine Russell noted among the 200-plus attendees were almost 30 subscriber columnists, noting "the contributions of these special subscribers are what make StarText unique and separates us from other BBS services."
One of those columnists, Bob Walthers, wrote a columnn that took a humorous look at life, and on occasion, StarText. The Infomart meeting was one of those occasions. Bob's report included this:
"[The Informart] -- "this marvelous paean to advanced technology, modeled after the famed Crystal Palace in London ... opened its triumphant doors to 200-plus semi-conscious StarText subscribers, some seven unnaturally alert StarText staff members and a handful of crew preparing for a trade show, WITHOUT A CUP OF COFFEE TO BE HAD IN THE WHOLE &$%#)_#BUILDING."
He also reported the staff's stock answer to most questions was, "Wait till Version 4."
But the lack of coffee at the Infomart wasn't the big news to come out of that meeting, and my journalist friends would accuse me of burying the lead on that score.
The next product we rolled out that July was the addition of something that had been near the top of the "wish list" for many customers -- an online encyclopedia.
Two decades before Wikipedia, the idea of making an encyclopedia available online made all kinds of sense, even then. Like thousands of other families, my parents bought us a set of World Books to help with our homework. And every year we ended up buying the Yearbook that kept our set of books up to date. At some point we actually had more Yearbooks than we had World Books.
The advantages of an online version were obvious:
-- Updates could be electronic, so theorically, the online encyclopedia was never out of date.
-- It was the only way to stay current with the pace of information.
-- Instead of "owning" a set of essentially history books, it could be available and updated on demand.
Not to mention the convenience. Doing research was as close as your keyboard.
The only vendor offering a commercial, online version of their encyclopedia at the time was Grolier's, who published their Academic American Encyclopedia on CDROM that year. It contained 31,000 entries, encompassing 10 million words. But more importantly, it was updated every 90 days.
We had been negotiating with them for six months and were ready to make the announcement at the user meeting.
Rather than have a per-minute charge for its use, we opted to offer tiers of usage: Customers could purchase three hours for $19.95, up to 10 hours for $49.95. By way of introduction, every subscriber got 20 minutes of service at no charge.
Leave it to programmer Larry Groebe to do a deep dive into the "tekkie" aspects of adding the encyclopedia:
"The encyclopedia came to us on two reels of magnetic tape, the old-fashioned kind you see in sci-fi movies involving evil computers. Each reel holds about 36 megabytes of information ... If the raw encyclopedia tapes were to be printed, 60 lines to a page, it would consume 15,000 sheets of paper."
Another feature that made its debut that month was The Film Vault.
While not nearly approaching the scale or importance of a HomeBanking or online encyclopedia, it was nonetheless an interesting marriage of content and technology.
Its genesis was rooted in the Star-Telegram TV book, the weekly roundup of what's on TV that comes with the Sunday newspaper. One of the features was an alphabetical listing of every movie showing that week on every channel, typically hundreds of titles.
"What if ..." we wondered ... we stored that list of movies and on a weekly basis, appended the new titles ... then made it searchable by title, genre and year? Wouldn't we end up with a database movie fans would love to have? It might not be today's Internet Movie DataBase, but for its day it would pretty darn good.
The key takeaway for us was the realizing the value of "evergreen" information, like movies, recipes, gardening advice, home improvement tips, etc. Repackaging and re-purposing that data had multiple benefits. It's interesting to note how databases and database reporting are one of the hottest trends in journalism these days.
As we raced into Fall, there's no questions 1985 had been an exciting and eventful year for StarText. But we weren't done yet.
Yet another new product was about to "take flight."