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

By , Matt Lake
July 15, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Delphi

Founded: 1981
Status: 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

The homegrown alternative: BBS

There was a time when even online services like CompuServe seemed cutting edge compared to dial-up bulletin board systems (BBSs), which were how many people got online back in the day. Starting in the late '70s, the average computer enthusiast could use specialized software and a modem to create a BBS. This host computer would wait for an incoming phone call and then present the caller's computer with a text interface used for accessing the host's files, posting messages, and chatting one-to-one with the board's sysop.

The first BBS was the CBBS, established in Chicago by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess. Christensen, who a year earlier had developed the XMODEM transfer protocol, used the Great Blizzard of 1978 as an opportunity to write the software.

BBSs were primitive by today's standards. Most systems had only a single dedicated phone line, limiting use to one caller at a time. More significantly, most BBSs did not talk to each other: A message posted on one computer could be read only on that computer, and e-mail could be sent only to other users of that same BBS.

BBSs were primitive by today's standards. Most systems had only a single dedicated phone line, limiting use to one caller at a time. More significantly, most BBSs did not talk to each other: A message posted on one computer could be read only on that computer, and e-mail could be sent only to other users of that same BBS. That said, many local systems ended up joining larger BBS networks such as FidoNet, which allowed them to access files and exchange e-mail with other BBSs.

Though many BBSs were run by hobbyists, a few commercial BBSs charged for access to hundreds of phone lines and gigabytes of data. (Some BBS software packages, such as TBBS, were themselves commercial products.) Several commercial BBSs evolved into full-fledged Internet service providers, but for the most part, the Internet quickly dwarfed these smaller networks into obsolescence.

At their height, there were 150,000 BBSs in North America alone; today, there are only a few hundred, most of which can be accessed via telnet. For more information, check out BBS: The Documentary, a three-DVD set that features interviews with many BBS legends.



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