How Prestel preceded the modern-day internet

There may not seem to be much connection between Prestel and the internet, but the Post Office’s communications platform was effectively Web 1.0

Friday, 31 July, 2020

WiFi and broadband are incredible technologies running seamlessly in the background, yet few of us really notice them until they develop a fault.

It’s easy to forget that in the 1990s, internet usage involved making a physical connection to a network from a single device, using a phone line and a screeching modem.

And on the subject of forgetting, it’s widely forgotten that the World Wide Web wasn’t the first time Brits had been able to shop, bank, research and socialise down a phone line.

Back in the 1970s, when Britain was torn between industrial strife and technological innovation, a platform called Prestel gave thousands of people a taste of the future.

So what are the similarities between Prestel and the internet? And why did the latter take off when the former didn’t?

Pres’ to impress

Prestel was conceived throughout the 1970s by the Post Office, and launched in 1979 just as home computing was beginning to take root through devices like the Sinclair ZX80.

At its launch, Prestel offered around 100,000 separate pages of data, many of which were uploaded and maintained by private businesses.

Users plugged a proprietary machine with a QWERTY keyboard into their phone socket and television, before digital data was piped to each terminal from central databases.

You could browse and search for relevant content, send and receive electronic mail, and even conduct rudimentary online banking.

There were precursors of 1990s bulletin boards, and it was possible to check train times and local weather.

This might sound impossibly futuristic by the standards of early Eighties Britain, when daytime TV was considered racy and Channel Four’s arrival was ground-breaking.

However, Prestel faced two significant problems.

Firstly, it wasn’t very well publicised. Even readers who were around at the time might not remember those chunky rented terminals with their uncomfortable rectangular buttons.

Secondly, Prestel was extremely expensive to use. And since content was slow to arrive, the pence-per-minute charges soon became anxiety-inducing.

The 1980s home computing boom hadn’t yet persuaded the nation of the benefits of digital communications.

And Prestel’s blocky text-only interface was almost as unsophisticated as Ceefax and ORACLE, the popular TV-based text services of the time.

With these page-indexed information repositories free to use on any compatible TV, Prestel’s more interactive nature didn’t seem enough to justify its punitive costs.

Less than 100,000 people ever signed up at any given time, and the service was switched off in 1994 – just as the World Wide Web began to sweep all before it.

A world of difference

The biggest difference between Prestel and the internet was the latter’s international ambition.

Both platforms were invented by Britons, but Prestel remained a domestic affair.

Where foreign networks did take off (notably in France), they were incompatible with the UK Post Office’s indigenous technology.

By contrast, the World Wide Web was suitable for a global audience, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee had always intended.

Its adoption in America – the home of companies like Apple and Microsoft – provided the rocket fuel the fledgling internet needed.

An array of American tech firms quickly formed to provide services from webpage browsing (Netscape) to connectivity (AOL) and email (Yahoo).

Prestel and the internet had many overlapping characteristics, but the Web was far more affordable – and available on any computer equipped with a modem.

Even so, it’s worth remembering that there was an online world before the World Wide Web came online.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!