Sun, Sep 26, 2004 - Page 11 News List

Internet's predecessor turns thirty

PRECURSOR Launched in 1974, the UK's Ceefax still enables TV viewers to access a wealth of information in less time than it takes to boot up a personal computer


This picture, dated Friday, shows Ceefax, the BBC's text service, which is celebrating its 30th birthday. Originally envisioned as a service for the deaf, Ceefax supplies viewers with over 1,000 pages of information.


Whether seeking the temperature in Caracas, the score of the latest England versus Australia cricket match or how to steam cook haddock, there is one place that millions of Britons turn to.

And it is not the Internet, but cyberspace's predecessor, Ceefax, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. More than 20 million viewers in the UK tune into the huge encyclopedia of information each week by typing three-digit codes at their television screens using their remote controls.

"The world at your fingertips," runs a banner at the bottom of Ceefax's main index page.

The service, available on terrestrial channels run by the BBC, emerged 30 years ago as engineers of the public broadcaster sought ways of providing on-screen subtitles for the deaf watching television shows.

Engineers found that a normal television picture had spare lines at the top of the screen that could be used to transmit words or numbers and thus Ceefax, a pun on "see facts," was launched on Sept. 23, 1974, providing viewers with written facts on their television sets.

Hailing Ceefax's landmark, British Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell described the service as the "precursor to the Internet news revolution."

"It still provides a distinct and unique service that many millions use," she said.

Viewers using Ceefax can access each of more than 1,000 pages in just a few seconds, whether it is to see world news headlines (page 101), the latest share prices in London (221) or English Premiership football headlines (302).

"This is still the number one means of finding information," a Ceefax fan known only as Keith told BBC News online.

"It beats the Internet, if you have it, hands down for speed and ease of use ... Most information can be displayed on the screen quicker than the time it takes a personal computer to boot up," he added.

Famous sports personalities have even admitted to feverishly checking Ceefax to see whether they have been selected to play for England's football, rugby or cricket squads before receiving confirmation from their coaches.

Unlike the Internet, Ceefax is unable to incorporate flashy graphics. The service's presentation has changed little in 30 years, restricted to using a series of square blocks to draw pictures in only a maximum of seven colors on a black background.

Unfortunately for the millions of Ceefax fans, the service won't make its 40th birthday, let alone its 60th. Ceefax in its current format is set to end in 2012 once the UK's terrestrial television channels switch over from an analogue signal to digital.

A service similar to Ceefax already exists on the BBC's digital channels, but viewers access news and other information using menus rather than numbers.

The government wants to switch the country completely to digital television to free up broadcast frequencies and to encourage technology that allows a greater number of channels and clearer signals.

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