CompuServe, Prodigy Et Al.: What Web 2.0 Can Learn From Online 1.0

GEnie, Delphi, AOL and other commercial networks once ruled the online roost. Where are they now, and what can their ghosts teach today's online communities?

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How short our memories are. Before everyone connected to one massive Internet, a variety of smaller commercial online services with names like CompuServe, GEnie, Prodigy, Delphi and, of course, America Online (AOL) ruled the roost. Some were launched as long ago as the late 1970s, and many were text-based with nary a graphic to be found. Each charged hourly or monthly fees to a national (and sometimes international) audience in exchange for access to its private network. In addition, there were many smaller Bulletin Board Systems, or BBSs, that were also accessed by use of modems and phone lines.

These services peaked in the mid-'90s, with millions of subscribers accessing their forums, download libraries, roundtables and special interest groups, discussing everything from computer programming to coupon clipping. They also provided a way for businesses to connect with their clients before the Web became ubiquitous. Be the content corporate or user-generated, kilobytes upon kilobytes of data -- which seemed like a massive amount of information in those days -- were available as fast as dial-up modems could download it.

Around the mid-'90s, the Internet, previously available mostly to universities and government organizations, expanded onto citizens' desktops, seriously threatening the online services' hegemony. Some online services became Web gateways, while others morphed into full-fledged Internet service providers (ISPs). One way or another, most tried -- and failed -- to compete with the more comprehensive and affordable Internet.

The recent ending of support for the old CompuServe Classic service prompted us to look back at some of the most popular commercial services. We'll explore where several of the most popular of those old-school services came from, what made them unique, and where they are now. Some of their characteristics may sound familiar, and you may wonder if Web 2.0 is really a new phenomenon, or if we've we simply come full circle.

Whatever their individual fates, these services live on not just in memory, but in their impact on the development of subsequent online communities. Even today's social networks could learn a lesson or two from the old online services.

CompuServe

Founded: 1969 (as Compu-Serv Network); 1979 (as CompuServe Information Service)Status: Available at CompuServe.com

CompuServe was founded in 1969 as a way for Golden United Life Insurance's computers to earn their keep via time-sharing to other businesses. The service expanded to the consumer market in 1979 (formally known as the CompuServe Information Service, or CIS) and was acquired in 1980 by tax firm H&R Block, which would also gobble up rival online service The Source in 1989.

The company contracted with networks such as Tymnet to share dial-up access numbers, giving CompuServe subscribers widespread access across the U.S. Access fees depended on your modem's rate: 300 bits per second cost $6 per hour, 2400 bps cost $12, and so on. (2400 bps seemed lightning fast back then but is inconceivably slow now.)

CompuServe never strayed far from its corporate roots, with a primary audience of professionals and executives. It provided daily news, stock tickers, weather reports and encyclopedias to CompuServe members, often adding surcharges above the standard connection rates (wags liked to abbreviate the service "CI$"). Early adopters found several unique features, including a "CB Simulator," or group chat room, which also offered one-to-one real-time messaging, similar to today's instant messaging.

Users were given numeric IDs, such as 75162.3001 -- an artifact of the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-10 computers upon which the service was founded -- but members could create handles by which to identify themselves in the various message boards and chat areas. CompuServe contracted with private individuals and parties to run its forums, with each forum's contract holder receiving a percentage of the billed time users spent in that forum. The most successful forums became full-time jobs for their system operators, or sysops.

Message boards sported easy-to-follow threaded conversations, though each forum could hold only a set number of messages, with old posts being automatically deleted as new ones were written. Program and data files could be downloaded from the libraries, where member-contributed uploads were verified by the forum's staff before being approved for public consumption. Each file had a description and keywords -- metadata that could be used to refine complex searches. By 1995, over three million members were making use of CompuServe's assorted resources.

The text-based interface allowed any computer to dial into CIS, though a graphical interface was also available by installing a client application that used CIS's proprietary HMI (Host-Micro Interface) protocol. In 1999, the text service was dropped in favor of a Web-based interface, but by then it was too late. "The burden of trying to support two types of services [text-based and graphical] at the same time opened the door for a competitor to come in and do a better job with the next iteration of what online services were to be," says Mike Schoenbach, sysop of several of CompuServe's gaming forums.

CompuServe was ultimately purchased by AOL, which "never supported a text system and entered the market with a much friendlier Windows-based point-and-click service," says Schoenbach, whose company, Fun Online, continues to operate various commercial forums.

CompuServe and its forums and "content channels" still exist today at CompuServe.com. Membership costs $19.95/month or $199/year, with access via either a Web browser or proprietary software called CompuServe 2000, which "offers support for the latest Windows operating system, Windows XP." Support for CompuServe Classic's HMI software and numeric accounts was discontinued on June 30, 2009.

NEXT: Delphi

Delphi

Founded: 1981Status: Available at DelphiForums.com

Unlike some of its competitors, which were started as side projects at larger organizations, Delphi was founded in 1981 with the goal of providing online access to information. It was launched by author Wes Kussmaul as Kussmaul Encyclopedia, the first online encyclopedia. By 1982, it featured message boards, e-mail and chat rooms as well.

Delphi was a small but persistent contender for online revenue well into the '90s, at which point the company tried several tactics to remain competitive in the face of the growing popularity of the Internet. In 1992, Delphi became one of the first national online services to offer consumer access to many elements of the Internet, such as telnet, Usenet and gopher. Around this time, Delphi membership peaked at 125,000.

The service languished in 1993 after being bought by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which in turn sold Delphi in 1996 to a group that included Bill Louden, former General Electric employee and founder of GEnie. Louden and company made Delphi accessible from the Internet, with Web pages for each member and forum.

This transition coincided with the elimination of membership fees, with the expectation that Web-based advertising would generate sufficient revenue to replace it. As with many dot-com era initiatives, reality fell short of expectations, and Delphi was soon for sale once again. Its management team merged with a company called Wellengaged to form Prospero Technologies, which in 2001 sold Delphi to a group that discontinued Web access. Prospero then repurchased Delphi just a year later and replaced the text-based access with a new Web interface that exists to this day, despite a buyout of Prospero in 2008 by Mzinga.

Delphi learned its lesson with its first attempt at an ad-based existence. Tony Ward, who has been a staff member on the service's Showbiz forum for more than a decade, notes that while the company does offer a free ad-based account, users must sign up for a paid account to get features such as an e-mail address, personal Web space, a blog, spell-checking, a custom signature and the ability to search old messages.

In this age of free Web communities such as Facebook, many still find Dephi a valuable service, says Ward: "I think a lot of people prefer the moderated message-board format over the free-for-all blog format that has become so prevalent in recent years. It's nice to know that most forums are well run and well organized thanks to their staff members. Some of the more popular Delphi forums get hundreds of messages per day. One, the Opinion Forum, gets over a thousand almost every day."

NEXT: Prodigy

Prodigy

Founded: 1984 (as Trintex);1989 (as Prodigy)Status: Subsumed into AT&T/Yahoo

In the early 1980s, an experiment in shopping and on-demand news delivery using television set-top boxes led three corporations to launch a colorful new online service. It was called Trintex, and unlike older services such as CompuServe and The Source, it wasn't tied to a dull ASCII interface. When it launched in four markets in 1984, this joint venture between IBM, Sears and CBS looked like a consumer product. Within four years, CBS had dropped out of the venture, and the service had a new name -- Prodigy.

Prodigy's colorful splash screens attracted snobby criticism from techies who considered graphical interfaces wimpy and a waste of processing power, but subscribers were drawn to the service because it aggregated the kind of information we now associate with Internet portal pages: news, weather, syndicated columnists, ESPN sports, games, Consumer Reports, and shopping services ranging from groceries to airline reservations. In 2009, this is part of the Internet landscape, but in 1989, it was a hallmark of Prodigy.

Another appealing feature was flat-rate pricing: Instead of charging by the hour, Prodigy offered tiered blocks of services for a flat monthly fee, starting at $9.95.

Despite the fact that subscribers were assigned such alphanumeric salads as PXTB03Z for usernames, Prodigy grew from 100,000 to half a million subscribers in the first year, then doubled to almost a million by 1991. However, Prodigy's subscriber base was fickle, and it suffered major attrition as it increased its monthly rates and began charging for previously free services such as e-mail and chat. The stable subscriber base probably peaked at around 460,000.

The service also lost goodwill when it interfered with the content of postings, deleting posts automatically based on key words without regard to context (zoological forums, for example, had to refer to the beaver by its Latin name).

But Prodigy rallied in 1993 by providing its members access to Internet content, starting with newsgroups and rapidly expanding to include an integrated Web browser. From there, it was a short step for Prodigy to morph into Prodigy Internet, an ISP with specialized content.

It changed ownership a couple of times, ending the millennium as part of SBC Communications. When SBC and Yahoo formed a strategic alliance and portal in 2002, SBC stopped offering new Prodigy accounts but allowed diehard subscribers to retain their @prodigy.net addresses. SBC subsequently purchased AT&T and adopted its brand, so what's left of Prodigy now appears in the att.my.yahoo.com portal and a few e-mail addresses.

NEXT: GEnie

GEnie

Founded: 1985Status: Defunct

GEnie -- named for its owner, General Electric -- was founded in 1985 as a time-sharing service, like CompuServe. But GE rarely gave this side business the resources necessary to compete with its more industrious kin; for example, while CompuServe and AOL offered both text and graphical interfaces, GEnie was almost exclusively text-based.

Whereas CompuServe appealed to professionals, GEnie had much to offer consumers and hobbyists. Members could interact with each other in flight simulators, trivia games and MUDs -- multi-user dungeons, the text-based precursors to today's massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). The forums, or "RoundTables" (RTs), were frequented by heavy hitters in the science fiction realm.

"Several famous writers, television producers, and so forth were active members, including J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5 -- which was in fact originally announced on GEnie," recalls Eric Shepherd, former sysop of the service's PowerPC Programmers RoundTable. "The Science Fiction RoundTable got so much traffic that it eventually had to be split into four RoundTables to support all the activity."

Without the support it needed from General Electric, GEnie was unable to maintain its momentum. "They were slow to add Internet-compatible features as the Internet became increasingly popular," Shepherd says. "Eventually, usage dwindled to the point where GE sold it off" in 1996 to Yovelle Renaissance Corp.

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