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Published: Tuesday, 3/21/2000

An experiment that paid off

Some ideas just naturally take a while to develop. And sometimes a product that seems perfect for the marketplace turns out to need a bit of work - or a lot of work - before the public is ready to accept it.

A recent article in The Blade's Business pages noted that a key software development used by 20 big U.S. banks with assets of more than $1 trillion traces its roots to the former Toledo Trust Co., an institution that disappeared in the bank takeovers a decade ago (its successor in these parts is Cleveland-based KeyBank).

The original idea, an early version of computer banking called VistaBanc, was tested in Toledo by about 100 households beginning in 1983 - including the Brickey family.

It's wonderful to see something marketable come out of an imperfect beginning.

The concept sounded very attractive. Customers with home computers could dial up the bank through a modem, call up account balances, transfer funds between accounts, pay bills, and monitor check clearings.

In addition, those banking at home could keep tabs on interest rates, get tips on financial planning, and even update their social calendars with upcoming special events in the Toledo area.

But the reality was that the Brickey family had to deal with a Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 personal computer, lovingly nicknamed a "Trash-80" by users around the country.

Its power seemed perfectly adequate at the time - 16K of random-access memory.

There's a term you won't hear very often these days: 16K (16 kilobytes) translates into 16,384 bytes of information.

There are probably toasters with that much memory these days.

Even an outdated laptop computer today will have 32 megabytes of RAM, or 33 million bytes - 2,000 times the data the 16K held.

Hard drives nowadays can handle anywhere from 4 to 20 gigabytes, meaning billions of bytes.

To make matters worse, the primitive computer ran more than 100 times slower than the average computers of today.

Data had to be stored on cassettes or (later, with upgrades) on floppy discs. And the modem was painfully slow.

With all of those problems, you'd wonder how anybody could get interested in computer banking in the early 1980s.

But something must have worked right - an estimated 20 million Americans now do at least some banking online.

The Toledo Trust experiment was hailed by American Banker newspaper as being "in a class by itself" in 1983.

The technology was sold and re-sold over the years, and improved upon, and finally it resurfaced as Interpose software, offered by InteliData Technologies Corp., of Reston, Va.

At the Brickey house, home banking was fun for a few months, but the Trash-80 eventually got diverted to other uses, like cranking out mailing lists and bowling-league score sheets.

And we returned to doing banking the old-fashioned way.

Three teenage sons took over the computer and pretty well wrecked the keyboard playing primitive video games.

But, in a way, our early computer experiment was a success, too.

Son No. 2, Jon, now works with computers systems for a living, for the U.S. Army.

And he has fond memories of the Trash-80.

"I didn't need the computer for results, like adults did," he recalls.

"I just wanted to have fun and see what would happen. It took 10 to 20 minutes to load a word-processing program or game.

"Today, we get upset when it takes more than 3 seconds to load an Internet page.

"I was on my way to geekdom at the age of 12. I spent hours, sometimes staying up until 2 or 3 a.m., copying programs in the BASIC computer language from programming magazines.

"And for all my work, the resulting program was a 10-secon'video' of a cannon shooting a ball across the screen."

But, my son goes on, "Today I need results from my computer. It has to earn its place on my desk or end up in computer heaven.

"Kids today have great graphics for games, color printing, visual programming languages, and the Internet.

"It almost makes me wish that I were 12 and doing it all over again."

We've come a long way since the early 1980s - and now 100 million Americans enjoy the fruits of early home-computer experiments.

We get our e-mail at home and at the office, and we surf the Net when we wish. In seconds.

And, in the process, we created a whole new stock market.

Homer Brickey is The Blade's senior business writer.



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