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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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.

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