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.
Many of you, perhaps even most of you, think of the Internet as a birthright. You've always had it, you can no more imagine life without it than you can imagine life without electricity. Believe it or not, though, the Internet you know and love only dates back to 1991 and the Commercial Internet eXchange (CIX). Before that if you were just an ordinary Jane or Joe and wanted to be online you needed not an ISP connection -- they didn't exist yet -- but an account on one of the online services such as America Online (AOL), BIX, CompuServe, GEnie, Prodigy, or a local bulletin board system (BBS).
Oh sure, the Internet had been already around for decades by the early '90s. But, unless you were at a university, government agency, or a research institution you had precious little chance of getting an Internet connection. Besides, the pre-Web Internet was about as user friendly as a bad-tempered Doberman.
There were some user-friendly programs such as elm and pine for e-mail; gopher for information retrieval, and Archie for hunting down files, but to really use the pre-Web Internet you needed to feel comfortable with a character interface and already have a pretty good idea where you could find what you were looking for.
It's no wonder, then, that the vast majority of people turned to the far more friendly and welcoming online services. However, those services, which I used to cover regularly for Computer Shopper in the '80s and '90s, all had their own quirks and cost a pretty penny.
Today, you probably pay a flat fee for your Internet service and, for the most part, you don't pay anything for the various Web sites you visit or services you use. In the pre-CIX Internet days, it was an entirely different story.
Unless you were lucky enough to live close to an online service point of presence you had to use a dial-up modem to call up an X.25 packet switched wide area network (WAN). This connection service alone could cost anywhere from an affordable $1 an hour to a wallet busting $30 an hour, which you could then use to connect with an online service. The online service would also typically charge you a monthly fee plus an additional fee of $1 to $6 an hour. And you thought your ISP was expensive!
Not only was the service pricey, it was also slow. In the late '70s to early '80s, the first PC modems delivered 300 bits per second (BPS). For most of the online services' lifespan, users were thrilled to get 1,200 to 14.4 kilobits per second (Kbps). By the time V.34 modems showed up in 1994, reaching the "unbelievable" speed of 28.8Kbps, the combination of ISPs and the Web was already greasing the skids for the rapid decline of online services. Today, of course, we sneer at speeds of 1 Megabit per second (Mbps)! It was a really different world.
If you put those high service charges together with the slow speeds, you won't be surprised to find out that for most of the period we used ASCII-based interfaces. We simply didn't have the speed or money for fancy graphics.
But while the look of the online services were quite different, how they were used will be quite familiar. For example, there was e-mail (although the only people you could easily write to were also on the same service). There was also instant messaging (IM), but again, it worked only if you were talking to someone who was on on your service. (It's telling that when CompuServe first introduced IM to its members in 1980, they called it CB Simulator.)
The sites also had file libraries. Today, we don't even think about finding a place to download files. We may use BitTorrent, we may go straight to a company's site, or we may use a Web site like TuCows or Download.com, but what we don't do is go to a lot of trouble to download files. Google it, download it, next. We certainly don't have to worry about paying for the time to download them. Back then, however, that was a big deal. Some people would pick a service on the basis of what files it made available for downloading and how much money it would cost per hour to bring them from the online service server to your PC.
I think the most important element that online services brought to people though were 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 technologies. Indeed, I made friendships on the services then that I still have today. These forums certainly didn't look anything as nice as their 21st century Web equivalents, but the conversations they carried were just as interesting and engaging then as they are now.
For better or for worse, we all know America Online (AOL). There was a time when you could hardly open your mailbox without finding yet another AOL CD. Thanks to a constant flood of those CDs, AOL came 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.
Ironically, AOL was 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. The AOL users, without a clue about how to behave on the Internet, were not welcomed. But, as time went on the war of words between AOL newbies and the old-guard Internet pros faded away.
That said, in the '90s, for millions of people AOL was The service. You talked to your friends on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), you hung out in chat rooms, and, before the likes of eHarmony and Match.com, you may have found your soulmate in the AOL personals.
At its peak, AOL was a giant of a company. Indeed its tie-up with Time Warner in 2000 -- a $350 billion deal -- was one of the biggest mergers of all time. It also turned out to be one of the biggest business fiascoes of all time. In part because once users got a taste of the Internet, many of them fled from AOL's dial-up modems to the first Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Even as AOL thought it was reaching for the stars, its foundation was eroding underneath its feet.
AOL is still around today. While it's no longer an online service per se, it still offers cheap dial-up access to the Internet and a Website front door to the Internet.
BIX (Byte Information eXchange) was a text-based online service of Byte magazine (then The magazine of computing and today an online tech news site). BIX had minimal services and never developed a successful graphic interface. It also never had that many members.
Why mention it then? Because, in a way, BIX was the precursor to all the technology news sites. While no one wrote stories just for BIX, writers and readers would talk about stories and the technology news of the day. If you like talking about stories today on ITworld, you owe BIX a small vote of gratitude.
CompuServe, a.k.a. CompuServe Information Service (CIS or CI$), 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.
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.
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.
Unlike the other online services, which got their start from techies, Prodigy began as an online shopping and news delivery service using television set-top boxes from the odd teaming up of IBM, Sears and CBS. After CBS left, the service was made available over modems instead of special cable boxes and Prodigy had begun.
Known for its "colorful" screens, techies hated Prodigy, but people who liked its one-price service and news and magazine aggregation loved it. Today that's old hat. In 1989, at Prodigy's peak, it was extraordinary.
Despite having as many as a million members, Prodigy never attracted the kind of loyalty the other services did. Today, I can still find AOL, BIX, CIS, and GEnie fans. Prodigy? No. With its shifting pricing schemes (the service tried charging extra for e-mail and online chat) and censorship (at one point you couldn't use the word "beaver" in zoology forums so people would use its Latin name), Prodigy never made fans.
In 1996, Prodigy tried to transform itself into a combination ISP and Web site. It managed to last for a while, but the service finally died off. Today, thanks to one of its ownership shifts, there may be a few prodigy.net e-mail addresses left, but the service itself is long gone.
Online service 2012
Today, we live in a very different online world. In many ways though, as I wrote this story, I found myself reminded of how much really hasn't changed. Even then, we had flame wars and arguments over real names vs. pseudonyms.
Instead of looking at ASCII-art images I can stream TV shows to my computer. Instead of having to write e-mail notes to my friends, I can videoconference with them. But the core of what I do -- looking for information and talking with friends -- is essentially the same.
Today is unquestionably better. I'd have to watch a lot of videos on a 4G network to come close to the bills I saw back in the '80s from online services. Everything, and I mean everything, is orders of magnitude faster. Still, when all is said and done, and I look at Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, I'm reminded of CIS, AOL, and BIX. The past is still alive with us today.
This article, "Before the Internet: The golden age of online services," was originally published at ITworld. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.