A Case History

by Joe Gillespie — Aug 1, 2000

TimeOut London Guide Time Out London Guide An interactive 'Point and Click' electronic book

Tomorrow's Newspaper 'Tomorrow's Newspaper' Startup Screen

NewsCaster The 'NewsCaster' An imaginary PDA with a colour screen

Front Page

Football

BMW ad Spreads from the 'first' electronic newspaper

Mosaic

Property page NCSA Mosaic, the first net browser displaying prototype pages for the Electronic Telegraph

When I was approached by the Daily Telegraph to do an interactive visualisation of an electronic newspaper back in 1993, there was a realisation that the dissemination of daily news on sheets of paper had an uncertain future.

I had been working with Apple Computer on interface design for the, then new, Newton MessagePad, and the possibility of delivering news on a future version of such a device seemed attractive.

It would be compact, light and portable, have a colour screen, sound and a pen driven interactive interface that anyone could use.

So the hardware was foreseeable, just a logical extension of existing technology, but how was the news going to be delivered to the user?

There were various possibilities for transferring the large amounts of data required, each with their own plusses and minuses.

Diskettes, mini CD-ROMs, satellite communications and cellular radio were all considered - remember, this was all science fiction in 1993 - but what did emerge, was that the system, whatever it was going to be, had to be interactive to give it a unique advantage.

It was no use just being able to read the virtual newspaper, the reader had to be able to respond. It must be a two way process!

The Macromedia Director presentation was pitched at the advertising business at a number of conference venues across the world. It showed the concepts of navigating through a 'virtual' edition of the Daily Telegraph with the pen driven interface.

One could click on a headline and have it expand into a whole article and on a football photograph to see Ian Wright score a goal for Arsenal as a digital movie clip.

But what really caught the audience's imagination, was the demonstration of clicking on an advertisement for BMW, seeing the television commercial, and then being presented with a menu of choices to get the number of their nearest dealer, have a brochure sent to them, arrange a test drive, finance, insurance - and even driving lessons.

The reaction to the presentation was awesome, the advertising men wanted it, and they wanted it immediately!

So, I was set the task of finding out how to get an electronic newspaper up and running as quickly as possible.

It was obvious that it would have to be implemented on a desktop computer over the existing telephone system as the availability of A4 size PDAs with colour screens and cellular communications was then, and still is, some way off in the future.

There were various bulletin board and electronic mail systems around, so the technology was, at least, in place - albeit at a very low bandwidth.

My first idea was to create an on-line PageMaker or Quark XPress where the user would have a 'reader' program that would display layouts created with a master 'server' at the newspaper.

There would be a number of standard page templates built-in to the reader and maybe some permanent advertising material so that only the text and pictures needed to be transmitted down the line. It was always at the back of peoples minds that the user would have to buy this 'reader' program as part of a subscription deal to finance the whole thing.

According to a poll of Telegraph readers, there would have to be versions for Windows, DOS, Macintosh and UNIX and the 'layout' version would probably have to run on Macintoshes linked into the newspaper's dedicated mainframe system because that is how they were used to working.

What quickly became obvious was that it was going to take a lot of time and money to produce the custom software to implement this scheme.

But just at that time, a university in the States produced a little freeware program called NCSA Mosaic.

On examination, Mosaic was able to do quite a lot of what we wanted - text, pictures, hypertext linking and so on. It had none of the fancy layout or digital video capabilities that I had in mind, but it was there, easily accessible to anyone with a modem - and free!

I mocked-up an edition of the Daily Telegraph using Microsoft Word and Mosaic. HTML was in its infancy and only took a couple of days to learn.

The layout possibilities were pretty abysmal but by swapping in and out of 'preformatted' mode and by using lots of multimedia style iconic buttons, it was possible to get something which, although looking nothing like a conventional newspaper, looked good in its own right and had all the required functionality.

Apart from the news, there were features, advertisements for property with 'walk throughs' and 'city' pages with columns of preformatted prices.

It was a hit! The Telegraph immediately set up a new department to get the electronic newspaper on line. I went in and trained the staff on how to use HTML and within a couple of months, the Electronic Telegraph was launched on the World Wide Web.

I must now express my sincere gratitude to the project team at The Telegraph including Nora, Clive, Len and Saul whose faith and foresight helped make the whole thing happen.

At the time of writing, The Electronic Telegraph has just been nominated the Best UK Web Site by Personal Computer World magazine and is on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

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