CompuServe, Prodigy et al.: What Web 2.0 can learn from Online 1.0

These old-school online services may be shadows of their former selves, but they have a lot to teach today's online communities.

Everyone's abuzz about Web 2.0, and it's no wonder. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are some of the Internet's most popular destinations, offering users unprecedented freedom to share content, engage in conversations and exchange ideas like never before.

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.)

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