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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Founded: 1985

Status: 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.

Yovelle changed the service's name from GEnie to Genie to reflect that General Electric was no longer the owner and, more significantly, changed the pricing structure without prior notification to its members. In protest of the unapproved charge to their credit cards, many users cancelled their subscriptions. Genie, once at a peak of 350,000 members, soon had only 10,000. IDT Corp., which bought Yovelle and with it Genie, was left with a service that was not worth the investment of making Y2k-compliant.

Logging into GEnie with an Apple IIGS
Logging into GEnie with an Apple IIGS (credit: Ken Gagne)

Genie closed its doors on December 30, 1999. Though the service exists in no official capacity today, some of its sysops went on to found AOL forums, Web sites and blogs that have continued the spirit and discussions of Genie's RoundTables.


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