StarText-- a capsule history

By Gerry Barker StarText Interact Manager

In the fall of 1981, the call went out to the newsroom at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Three editors were needed to boldly take the Star-Telegram where few newspapers had gone before. It sounded too good to pass up.

The venture, then unnamed, was designed to test the public's appetite for information delivered directly to homes over telephone lines, a technology known as videotex.

At the time, a number of media companies were trying to capitalize on a host of emerging technologies: videotex, teletext, low power television, direct broadcast satellites, interactive cable, etc.

The buzzwords were "threats" and "opportunities," and the trick was how to make the former into the latter.

So I answered the call.

Tom Steinert-Threlkeld (at the time director of new technology for Capital Cites), was putting it together, with the assistance of Joe Donth, the Star-Telegram's director of data processing. Our partner was the Tandy Corp.

The Star-Telegram would provide editorial content; Tandy would act as system operator, providing the software and computers.

One of our first tasks was come up with a name for this new business. Since it was a product of the Star-Telegram, and would be a text-only service, I suggested StarText.

Tom liked it, and that's what we called it.

The first day of service was May 3, 1982.

There was a story about us in the Star-Telegram that day, and a half-page ad touting our slogan, "The news you want when you want it."

It probably should be noted the Dallas Morning News really had the first online service for a newspaper. Known as BISON (Belo Information Systems Online), it launched in 1981 and closed in 1982 for lack of business.

The cost to subscribe to StarText was $5 a month for unlimited use.

While the "flat rate -- use all you want" is well-established now, at the time that was a radical concept. Online services (notably CompuServe and The Source) were all pay-by-the-minute. That didn't seem to us the best way to attract the consumer audience.

We went against conventional wisdom in other ways, too. Our information was available under keywords instead of menus and our focus was local, not national.

No one in the industry took our approach very seriously, which was probably a blessing in disguise.

So what did subscribers get for their $5?

First and foremost, they got news, updated from 5 a.m. to midnight. There were stories from the Star-Telegram, top state, nation and world news, sports, business and entertainment. Probably about 50 choices in all (as compared to over 7,000 today).

Also available were a limited number of Star-Telegram classifieds and flight schedules for American Airlines.

Unlike today, only a limited number of computers could use StarText when we launched.

You had to have a Tandy Model I, Model III, or the new Tandy Vidtex terminal, something they developed exclusively for their videotex product.

Newspapers in Tiffin, Ohio and Hutchison, Kansas were also using the Tandy software.

Unlike today, the first version of StarText wasn't truly an "online" system. You called the host computer (at 300 baud), entered up to four requests, the host computer delivered the information, then hung up. If you wanted more, you had to call back.

And what was the host computer? That was one of the early questions I asked.

I knew it was over at Tandy, because we updated our files via a 1200-baud linkup. Finally one day I got to see it.

I remember entering the Tandy inner sanctum, and passing row upon row of mainframe computers. Very impressive, I thought. Then we got to the back of the room. There, sitting quietly off in a corner, was the StarText host computer.

A Model II on a portable cart.

Ever ask a question you wish you hadn't?

That first summer, despite all our high hopes, business did not boom. In fact, after six months of trying we had less than 50 customers.

There were a lot of contributing factors. But the biggest obstacle was the fact some of the most popular computers on the market at the time (Commodore, Atari and Apple) couldn't use us.

In September of 1982, StarText was at a major crossroad.

My two fellow editors had had enough of new technology and were ready to return to the newsroom. Then the project's founder, Steinert-Threlkeld, resigned to pursue other opportunities.

It looked as if StarText had reached a dead end.

But there were two people left who believed this was a business in which the Star-Telegram needed to be involved. Joe Donth, and myself.

We pitched the idea of keeping it going to Phil Meek, at the time publisher of the Star-Telegram, now president of the Publishing Division for Capital Cities/ABC. I would take care of editorial by hiring two students right out of college, while Joe would take care of the technical issues.

Then Joe added one more condition: that Tandy give us new software to allow any computer to connect.

Tandy delivered, and the "new and improved" StarText was available in October. Not only could any computer now use us, but also we became a true "online" service.

As word got around any computer could use StarText, our numbers started to grow. By year's end, we had over 260 subscribers, and momentum. The effect on Joe and I was the same as if we had 26,000.

But it got even better. Personal computers were the hot item that Christmas, and almost overnight, we jumped to 400 subscribers.

Things were really rolling. Rolling too good, in fact. In January, we hit another major crisis.

Our Model II host wasn't designed to handle large volumes of callers, and suddenly the system was down more than it was up.

While Tandy worked to fix the problems, Joe had his own longterm answer: move StarText to a bigger computer.

So his new after-hours project was write a videotex system for the VAX 750, a state-of-the-art mini-mainframe made by Digital.

In April, 1983 Joe was ready to launch on the VAX. Tandy wanted to keep it going on the Model II. In effect, subscribers had their choice.

Joe would be the first to tell you Version 1 of the VAX StarText (which was priced at $7.95 a month) was less than perfect. It was slow, and somewhat clunky.

But true to form, Joe went back to the drawing board and within weeks rewrote the entire system. Version 2 went online, and it was a winner. Not only was it fast, it also provided a host of new features, like electronic mail, and metro lines for Dallas customers.

In June, 1983, the partnership with Tandy ended. StarText was now solely a product of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

In the years since, StarText has enjoyed steady growth, national and international recognition and has succeeded where other newspapers and media organizations haven't.

Why? Partly because we have held true to our original beliefs: videotex should be affordable, easy to use and reflect the community we serve. Sounds a lot like the daily newspaper, doesn't it?

Of course, more than anything we have our subscribers to thank.

Here's are historical highlights since 1983:
December, 1983 -- StarText holds its first Christmas Card Contest. The idea was to create an original Christmas card design using nothing but ASCII characters. This has since become a StarText tradition.

Feb. 23, 1984 -- StarText reaches a milestone. . .1,000 subscribers. We marked the occasion with a special T-shiru bearing the slogan, "The First 1000." You still see them occasionally at subscriber meetings, proudly worn by their owners.

June, 1984 -- StarText conducts the first of what we call our "town hall" meetings. We wanted to give subscribers an opportunity to meet the staff face-to-face, ask questions, offer suggestions, etc. Now held quarterly, this has been an important part of our continued growth and success. In fact, half of everything on StarText came about from a subscriber suggestion.

August, 1984 -- Another tradition starts -- the summer StarText Short Story Contest. We invite subscribers to submit original stories and offer prizes to the winners. The first theme was science fiction. The late Ed Jackson wins for "Rad 14," the first of several Rad stories.

September, 1984 -- What if we took volunteers and wrote a novel together? That's just what happened. The result was the Starnovel, a chain novel written a chapter at a time by volunteer subscribers. Dubbed "Friday the 13th -- The Final Chapter," (long before the movie of the same name) 29 writers contributed to the effort.

November, 1984 -- StarText premieres a new monthly newsletter called StarText INK. It announces the arrival of Version 3, which adds 1200 baud, improved E-mail and faster response time. The price of StarText becomes $9.95 a month.

November 2, 1984 -- StarText records its first marriage between subscribers as a result of a meeting and "courtship" over electronic mail: Ed Jackson and Patricia Chadwell. In March, 1992 Ed and Pat both died within 24 hours of each.

May 15, 1985 -- StarText drops metro line service and adds a local Dallas rotary using a high-speed link to the host computer in Fort Worth.

May 31, 1985 -- StarText and InterFirst Bank Fort Worth (subsequently First RepublicBank and NCNB) sign agreement to offer the first electsonic banking service in the Southwest. Customers can pay bills, check balances and vuew up-to-date statements.

Aug. 31, 1985 -- Grolier's Academic American Encyclopedia is added to StarText. It offers over 30,000 articles updated every 90 days.

November, 1985 -- The first monthly meeting of the StarText SIG is held in conjunction with the Dallas Computer Council's "Super Saturday" meeting at Infomart.

December, 1985 -- For the first time, subscribers can send electronic mail to Santa Claus, and receive answers from Santa.

Jan. 8, 1986 -- StarText goes over 2,000 subscribers, and announces it becomes the first newspaper-connected service to achieve profitability.

April 8, 1986 -- StarText/InterFirst HomeBanking is officially launched. The service would come to be viewed as one of the most innovative in the country. In September, 1990, HomeBanking was discontinued when NCNB consolidated its operations to Houston.

December, 1986 -- New computer store promotion is offered: "Seven Days of StarText." It provided one week of service for $4.95. The program was later discontinued in favor of other promotional programs.

April, 1987 -- StarText adds credit card billing option, allowing payment via MasterCard, Visa and Discover.

April, 1987 -- StarText adds StarQuotes, a 15-minute delay stock quotation service.

March, 1988 -- StarText begins a quarterly program of recognizing outstanding work by subscriber columnists. The subscriber columnists are one of the unique aspects of StarText service. Each quarter, a columnist is selected as "StarColumnist of the Quarter," and is given a plaque at a yearly awards dinner.

March 6, 1989 -- StarText launches the Business Edition, which combines StarQuotes with a comprehensive package of business news and features. The cost is $14.95 monthly.

October, 1989 -- American Airline's EAASY SABRE personal travel reservations system is added. This service provides flight schedules, prices, hotel and rent car rates and availability, weather conditions and more. There is no extra fee to use EAASY SABRE on StarText.

September 22, 1990 -- StarText moves from the VAX to a PC-based system operating on a Novell LAN. New features include 2400 baud service, Xmodem, family accounts, tracking, expanded E-mail functions and increased response time.

October, 1990 -- Both new and previous classified ads are available, as well as five days of stock quotations.

September, 1991 -- StarText debuts a new format for news, the nNewsmagazine, along with a host of other enhancements, including messaging and optional menus. In conjunction with these changes, a new 100-plus page User Guide is produced.

January, 1992 -- StarText President Joe Donth leaves to head a new effort to license StarText technology to other newspapers. A new company is formed, StarText Technology and Information Services. Maureen Hathaway, Star-Telegram Vice President for Marketing and Technology, is named StarText President.

April, 1992 -- StarText launches a new Sports Edition, featuring Fantasy Baseball, Fantasy Horse Racing and comprehensive sports information. The subscription cost is $19.95 monthly.

May 3, 1992 -- StarText marks its 10th year of operation.

May 19, 1992 -- StarText celebrates its 10th anniversary with a gala at the Grapevine Convention Center. Door prizes and give-aways included an NEC PowerMate SX/20i 386-computer, 2400-baud modem, American Airlines tickets, Anniversary T-shirts, and much more. Over 200 subscribers and guests attend.

September, 1992 -- A new Delux StarText User Guide was published. The book featured a 3-ring binder format and J.D. Crowe's drawing of the StarText mascot, the Starmadillo.

January, 1993 -- A new communications program for MS DOS computers, StarComm, was released. The new program featured pull down menus, session log files, a text editor, an address book, and up to 20 "pages" of scroll back memory.

Also in January, a retail starter kit containing the StarComm software and a certificate good for 45 days of StarText service was designed. The retail kit is being sold in local Taylors book stores and local computer stores.

October 1993 -- KLIF radio plugs into StarText with TalkRadio Online. Correspond with your favorite radio hosts by requesting KLIF.

Feb. 1, 1994 -- Online Business Directory launched.

Feb. 4, 1994 -- Article from La Estrella, the Spanish-language edition of the Star-Telegram, added to StarText.

March, 1994 -- StarText launches menu guide for restaurants.

Note: Since this file was written, StarText has made the transition to the Internet. In the future, we will be updating our more recent history since arriving on the World Wide Web. Watch for that coming soon ...

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