Before the Internet: The golden age of online services

Before there was the World Wide Web, back when 2,400 BPS modems were "high-speed", millions of people used online services, like AOL, CompuServe, and GEnie to work with each other, gossip, and share Star War jokes.

By , ITworld |  Business, AOL, compuserve

CompuServe

CompuServe

"Classic" CompuServe had an interface that only a techie could love.

CompuServe, a.k.a. CompuServe Information Service (CIS or CI$), was the first major online service. The CI$? It earned that nickname because between the hourly online service rates and the cost to connect over X.25 lines, you could blow more than $30 an hour.

Nevertheless, CIS had millions of loyal users. (I still know my CIS ID, although I haven't used it in over ten years.) You see, for all that money you got connected to hundreds of online forums. Each forum contained numerous online discussion areas and file download libraries. That sounds like nothing today, but in the late '70s and early '80s, it was amazing.

CIS began when its owner bought a Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-10 minicomputer in 1969 running the now hopelessly obscure TOPS-10 operating system. The PDP-10 with its slightly more than 1MB of RAM was far too much computer for his company so the owners offered its services to business using timesharing.

By 1979, shortly before being acquired by H&R Block, CIS started offering its online services to individual PC users. H&R Block, whose tax preparation minicomputer sat idle in the tax off-season, decided CIS was just what it needed to keep income coming in when 1040s weren't. At its high, CIS is believe to have contributed as much as 15% of the tax giant's revenue.

CompuServe GUI

CompuServe tried to adapt to the graphical user interface age, but unlike AOL it never made much of a go at it.

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." Indeed it was.

Competition from AOL and the Web soon brought CIS to its knees though. By 1997, the company was bought by AOL and its decline accelerated. Somehow the online service managed to hang on until 2009 under the name of CompuServe Classic.

Like AOL, its current owner, CompuServe lives on, a ghost of its former self, as a Web portal site.

 

GEnie

Genie

Although not as well known as AOL or CompuServe, GEnie was very popular with gamers in its heydays.

Computerworld/Ken Gagne

Would you believe General Electric had an online service? Believe it. GEnie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange), while never the equal of CIS, had several hundred thousand users in its heydey. Like CIS, GEnie ran on computers -- General Electric mainframes instead of DEC minicomputers -- in the company's off-time.

Many GEnie users, especially writers, like J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5 came to GEnie for its forums, or "RoundTables" as GEnie called them. But most users came to GEnie for its games. Indeed, you could argue the first massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) started on GEnie. Today's World of Warcraft and Guild Wars got their start from now largely forgotten games such as GemStone, Dragon's Gate and BattleTech.

Alas, General Electric never invested much in GEnie and it was slow to even try to adapt it to the Internet. By the end of 1999, GEnie was dead. RIP.

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