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​Before the Web: Online services of yesteryear

Before we were watching Netflix movies, video-conferencing with our friends, and playing real-time video games on the Internet, we were using online services, such AOL, CompuServe, and GEnie to talk about movies, type letters to our buddies, and play ASCII, turn-based games.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Who would have thought thirty years ago we'd have 60Mbps Internet connections in our homes? Back when I started online, in the late 70s, the only way you got on the Internet was at major universities or research institutions, By the early 80s, a parallel online world began powered by 1981's Hayes Smartmodem. This was the world of online services such as AOL, Bulletin Board Systems (BBS)s, CompuServe, and Prodigy.


The "speed-demon" of its day: The Hayes 300 baud Smartmodem opened the door for online services.

The Smartmodem, with its blazingly fast 300 bits per second, made it just possible for people to connect to online services. You still, with rare exceptions, couldn't use the early modems to connect to the Internet.

There were no Internet Service Providers (ISP)s yet. The Web was still more than a decade away. The Internet you know and use every day dates back to 1991 and the Commercial Internet eXchange (CIX). Before CIX if you wanted to be online you had to have an account on one of the online services such as America Online (AOL), BIX, CompuServe, GEnie, Prodigy, or a BBS.

That may have been just as well. The pre-Web Internet was not user friendly.

What Internet users, like yours truly, thought of as user friendly: programs such as elm and pine for e-mail; gopher for information retrieval, and Archie for hunting down files, were only user-friendly by Unix programmer standards. Linux? It's still more than a decade away too.

What was user-friendly and available for a monthly rate were the online services.

Online services

From the 80s through the mid-90s, you had to use a dial-up modem to call up either a local number or more likely, an X.25 packet switched wide area network (WAN) connection to reach these services. This connection alone would cost anywhere from a buck an hour to a wallet-busting $30 an hour. The online service would also typically charge you a monthly fee plus an additional fee of $1 to $6 an hour.

So before you grumble about your cable or DSL Internet bill, remember it used to be much worse.

Besides being pricey, these services were slow as waiting for a utility repairman. For most of the online services' lifespan, users were thrilled to get 1,200 to 14.4 kilobits per second (Kbps). By 1994, when V.34 modems showed up with their "amazing" speed of 28.8Kbps, ISPs and the Web was finishing off the online services.

To make these services work at all, you almost always had to use ASCII-based interfaces. By today's standards, even the best online services' interfaces are hopelessly crude.

Behind those ugly interfaces there were familiar services, such as e-mail and instant messaging (IM), but they were far more limited. For example, unless you were an e-mail expert, you could only write to people on the same service. The same was true of IM.

A big selling point for online services in those days were their file libraries. In this golden age of freeware and shareware people would pick a service on the basis of their file library and how much it cost per hour to download them from the online service to your PC.

Say hello to the early days of web browsers (gallery)

Then, as now, what really made online services go was that they enabled people to connect through online communities. Long before there was Facebook or Google+, people got together on the various services' online forums to talk about their favorite baseball teams, bands, or games. I made friendships on these services then that I still have today.



Remember when you couldn't open your mailbox without finding yet another AOL CD? It was annoying, but it worked. Thanks to those CDs, AOL became the most popular of the online services. At its peak, in the late '90s and early '00s, AOL had more than 30 million members.

AOL was also one of the first online services to embrace the Web. One of its big selling points in the '90s was that you could use it to get to the Internet. This enabled AOL to knock out the other online services who were much slower to realize that the coming of the Web changed everything.

Even without the net people used AOL for everything online. You talked to your friends on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), you hung out in chat rooms, and, before eHarmony and Match.com appeared, you looked for your partner in the AOL personals.

For a brief while AOL was a real media power. It's Time Warner merger in 2000, for 350 billion, was one of the biggest mergers of all time. It also became one of the biggest business fiascoes of all time.

That was in no small part because once users saw the "real" Internet, its customers fled from AOL's already over-subscribed dial-up modems to the early ISPs.

AOL still lives today. It's tried, without much success, to reinvent itself as a publishing site with the purchase of Huffinton Post. While it's no longer an online service per se, it still offers dial-up access to the Internet and an old-style Internet portal.


With the rise of "relatively" cheap modems, it wasn't just big companies that set up online services. Individuals, starting with Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, in 1978 set up PC-based online services. Their Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS) set the pattern for home-made online services.

Their work was followed by thousands of other sites. Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant founded the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (The Well) in 1985. Today, this prominent community site continues on as a web site.


Programmer's Corner: The BBS-era ancestor to programming sites such as GitHub.

Other sites, such as Gary Smith's (today Ignite Media's CIO) The Programmer's' Corner paved the way for programming sites such as DZone, Stack Overflow, and GitHub.

Without the Internet, the BBSes created their own networks, such as FidoNet, to store-and-forward e-mail and online forum messages between BBSes. This resembled the Internet's Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP). Like UUCP, FidoNet is still around but it's no longer commonly used.



Before CNet, and ZDNet, there was BIX.

BIX (Byte Information eXchange) was a text-based online service of Byte magazine. It was a bare-boned site and never had that many members.

What it did have though was technology features, news and discussions. It was the ancestor to today's technology news sites, including ZDNet.



CompuServe, aka CI$, the first online service.

CompuServe, also known as CompuServe Information Service (CIS or CI$), was the first major online service. Why CI$? Because between the hourly online service rates and the X.25 costs, you could burn $30 an hour on it. Been there, done that, paid the credit-card bill.

Despite the price-tag, CIS had millions of loyal users. Heck, I still know my CIS ID, 72441,464, after all these years.

What CompuServe had going for it were hundreds of very active online forums. Each forum included numerous online discussion areas and file download libraries. That's ordinary today. But back in its day, there was nothing to match it.

CIS began when its co-founder Jeff Wilkins bought a Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-10 minicomputer in 1969 for his father-in-law's insurance company. Of course, he didn't buy it to set up an online service. He bought it to run his business. But, with about 1MB of RAM, it was far too much computer for his company so he offered time-sharing services.

In 1979, shortly before being bought out by H&R Block, CompuServe started offering its online services to individuals. H&R Block, whose own minicomputers collected dust in the tax off-season, decided CIS was just what it needed to keep income coming between 1040s CIS brought in as much as 15% of the tax giant's revenue.

At the height of its popularity (the mid-'80s to mid-'90s), CompuServe was the "computer nerd's online service." As Roger Blackwell, a former Ohio State University marketing professor and a past CompuServe director, said at a 2011 CompuServe reunion, "All organizations have a culture. CompuServe had a cult. It was the Google of the '80s."

Competition from AOL, a failure to innovate, and the Web soon took CIS down. The online service side finally died in 2009. Today, a shadow of its former glory, CompuServe limps on as a portal site.



GEnie was never that popular, but it pioneered online gaming.

GEnie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange), never came close to matching AOL or CIS. At most, it had several hundred thousand users. Like CIS, GEnie ran on computers -- General Electric mainframes instead of DEC minicomputers -- in the company's off-time.

What GEnie lacked in numbers it made up in quality "RoundTables." These online forums featured writers, such J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5.

What really kept GEnie in business was its games. The first massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPG) started on GEnie. World of Warcraft and Guild Wars got their start from now largely forgotten games such as GemStone, Dragon's Gate, and BattleTech.

It could have become a major gaming site, but GE never invested much in the service and was very slow to integrate it with the Internet. By the close of 1999, GEnie closed it doors.



It never made many fans, but Prodigy was an important online service in its day.

Prodigy, which was created by IBM, Sears and CBS, wasn't meant to be an online service. It was meant to be an online shopping and news delivery service using television set-top boxes. When CBS dropped out, deciding it was a waste of money, IBM and Sears transformed it into an online service.

Known for its crayon-color graphics, many techies hated Prodigy. Not all did. ZDNet's own Jason Perlow met his wife on the service.

Most people liked it for its one-price service and news and magazine aggregation. That's nothing special now. Then, it was a big deal.

Prodigy, despite almost a million members, never made hardcore fans. Its management annoyed users with ever-changing pricing schemes. At one point they tried charging extra for e-mail and online chat. They also got a bad name for censorship. The silliest example was they banned the word "beaver" in zoology forums. In retaliation people use its Latin name, Castor canadensis

In 1996, Prodigy tried, and failed, to become a combination ISP and website. Today only bits and pieces of the service survive.

Yesterday and today

Looking back, the online services look hopelessly awkward and slow. Indeed, they were, but they pioneered today's websites.

True, the look and feel are quite different. But, I can't help but notice that online communities still feel the same, no matter what the interface, And, finally, that intra-personal communication, while far more sophisticated now, are what drew us to the online services of yesterday and they still bring it us to the Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ today.

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