BBC Announces Closure of Telesoftware Service (1989)

As you are probably aware, the BBC is currently having to examine every area of its operations with a view to saving money, or to make better use of existing resources. In the case of Telesoftware there are additional technical reasons for its closure.

Under the present transmission system, Telesoftware adds about 20 per cent to access time for users of the readable text service on BBC2. A new teletext transmission system is being introduced to enable the BBC to expand and enhance the main CEEFAX service, and the effectiveness of this would be seriously impaired by the need to devote a disproportionate amount of computer preparation and transmission capacity to Telesoftware.

The BBC has also had to consider how most efficiently to allocate the use of the available VBI (Vertical Blanking Interval) lines in the television signal between CEEFAX, the Subtitling service for the hearing-impaired - which the BBC is also expanding - and the highly successful Data Broadcasting division of BBC Enterprises. (Incidentally, the 'No Need To Shout' section for the deaf is not affected.)

As capacity is limited, such allocation has to be made on the basis of providing the most cost effective services to the maximum number of people.

Even before the decision about Telesoftware was taken, BBC Schools Television, who used the service as a means of distributing programme notes, had decided that after the next academic year, they would discontinue this method of distribution because so few schools now use it, and the duplication of effort required could no longer be justified.

It is appreciated that some schools have also made use of some of the software programs transmitted by Telesoftware. But with the exception of the weather satellite image transmission (q.v.), similar programs - and in many cases identical programs - are available from other sources.

When the decision came, on July 24th, one of the factors in the timing of its implementation was that it would be better to effect the closure before the next school term started, thereby avoiding problems that might be created had programs been started and then left incomplete.

The main consideration, however, was related to the technical changes needed for the enhancement of the main CEEFAX services. The first stage of this is tied in with the launch of a new style of early morning television on BBC1 in mid-September. Once the decision to end Telesoftware had been taken, there were considerable savings to be made in doing it sooner rather than later, since the continuation of Telesoftware for even a short period beyond September would have made it necessary to commission - at additional cost - two versions of the technical and software changes required for the new CEEFAX service.

It is worth remembering that the BBC Micro was a consequence of the Computer Literacy Project started by BBC Continuing Education in the early 80s. That project achieved its aims and has long since ceased to be active, although support for the BBC Micro continued. Telesoftware was devised to provide software support to the BBC Micro in the early days, particularly in relation to Education programmes. It has always been a minor adjunct to, and not an integral part of, the BBC's commitment to the BBC Microcomputer.

Some statistics might be illuminating.

There are more than 6 million teletext sets in use in UK homes, with around 20 million people using the service each week.

The last total (in May) of sales of teletext adapters showed that there were just over 31,500 in domestic use. Obviously some more will have been sold since then - but on the evidence of figures from one manufacturer, this has been in the low hundreds, including the IBM card.

At the most generous interpretation of the figures, this is only about 7% of what might be expected to be the biggest target audience - owners of BBC Micros. In other words, after five years, more than 90% of the people for whom the service was devised have found it neither necessary nor attractive.

It also means that fewer than 0.2% (0.17%) of teletext users actually own an adapter - and at the most generous estimate, 0.5% have access to a teletext adapter. This, of course, assumes that all adapter owners - and their entire families - actually use it every week.

The department's budget is for the benefit of ALL teletext users, and the amount required to maintain the Telesoftware service - about 10% - is seriously disproportionate to the number of potential users.

With the exception of the Meteosat image, the type of software that has been transmitted by this service is by no means unique, and the Meteosat service could not, in any event, have been continued for much longer.

We have been allowed access to it free of charge by the Met Office, but they have advised us that they have plans to turn it into a coded service for transmission under licence. Even if the BBC could afford to subscribe, it is doubtful that we would be allowed to provide, free of charge to Telesoftware users, something another organisation wishes to sell.

That aside, there are several ways (apart from normal commercial outlets) through which BBC Micro owners can obtain or swap around information and software - most notably the kind of magazines and user groups to which owners of all other micros (who haven't had the advantage of a free software delivery service) have always had to turn.

In short, the closure of the Telesoftware service in no way cuts off vital supplies of software, merely one means of their delivery.

Critics of the quality and sophistication of Telesoftware programs - and there have been some - have suggested that the service should include more Public Domain and Shareware material. Unfortunately, while Public Domain can be freely exchanged between individuals, there are copyright problems which require the BBC to seek permission from each author to transmit the material - a time-consuming and costly process. Full time staff would have to be employed to catalogue the material and check each item for bugs, and ensure that it is not a pirate copy, for example.

Shareware works on the basis of trust - that those who find the programs useful, should send a specific amount to the author. It is impossible for the BBC to monitor who is taking the material, who is finding it useful, and whether the recipient is paying the author.

It is regrettable that those who have recently purchased teletext adapters now find that the main reason for that purchase has gone, and it is appreciated that it is no consolation to those who acted on some of the more recent computer press and advertising statements about the future of Telesoftware that such statements were being made without the authority of the BBC.

It should also be noted that, contrary to popular myth, most of the software that has been transmitted over the years, while free to the Telesoftware user, has had to be purchased by the BBC. So, apart from those who unfortunately purchased an adapter very recently, the vast majority of Telesoftware users have had more than value for money. It is, after all, the normal practice for computer user groups to levy at least an annual subscription to help fund the purchase of software for the group - and there is usually at least a nominal charge to members for each piece of software.

It is not out of the question, however, that some form of software transmission could be developed as a BBC Datacast subscription service for home micro users, accessible with existing teletext adapters.

The continuation of what has been, in effect, a free software delivery service to a 'user group' representing a small percentage of enthusiasts for a particular model of home microcomputer is a luxury which the BBC can no longer afford.

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