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.

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Unlike the other online services, Prodigy always had a GUI, but it was... ah... shall we say rather ugly.

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 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.

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