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.

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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 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.

A chatroom transcript from CompuServe's Gamers Forum (GO GAMERS) on March 2, 1993
A chatroom transcript from CompuServe's Gamers Forum (GO GAMERS) on March 2, 1993 (credit: Ken Gagne)

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