On-Line Services Leaping Forward

LAWRENCE J. MAGID <i> is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer</i>

Ten years ago, two companies set out to create an industry. In 1979, CompuServe and the Source launched competing electronic information services for personal computer owners.

Subscribers to either service who hooked their computers up to a telephone line could, among other things, send and receive electronic mail. Over the years, both services added features such as access to home shopping, electronic “bulletin boards,” up-to-the-minute news, travel information, encyclopedias and much more.

I was once a regular user of the Source, but I stopped using it a few years ago when I noticed that CompuServe offered more features for about the same price. I wasn’t alone. The Source, which was once owned by Reader’s Digest, reportedly peaked at about 80,000 subscribers in 1985 and sank to about 50,000 users by the end of 1988.

CompuServe, however, has grown steadily. The company claims to have more than 500,000 subscribers. And it is about to add thousands more by virtue of its agreement announced June 29 to acquire the Source for an undisclosed amount. The company plans to shut down the Source in August and issue a free CompuServe password and a $20 credit to each current subscriber.


Normally, I would mourn the death of an industry pioneer and lament what might seem like bad news for consumers. But the “on-line” industry has heated up lately and CompuServe faces other competitors that are far more innovative and aggressive than its former rival.

Competition between services was once based on the number of features, or information services, available. But companies are also competing on ease of use and cost.

Change in Communication

When you’re connected to a traditional on-line service, your PC essentially works as a dumb terminal talking to a giant mainframe. The Source and CompuServe subscribers, in general, communicate with the mainframe directly, issuing commands in response to on-screen instructions or “menus.” Both systems are easier to use than many academic and corporate mainframes, but neither is as easy to use as the best of today’s personal computer programs. That, however, is changing.


CompuServe is working on a new program, called the CompuServe Information Manager, that will revolutionize the way people use the service. A version for IBM PC and compatible computers will be released this fall followed by a Macintosh version early next year.

After experimenting with an advance copy of the software, I am convinced that the service will not only be easier to use but also more economical. Instead of responding to prompts from the mainframe, the user issues commands by selecting them from pull-down menus at the top of the PC screen.

Users can also save money by doing some of their work before connecting to the service. Electronic mail, for example, can be composed and read “off-line” so that you don’t have to pay the hourly fee while you are reading or typing.

The program that will run on your PC or Macintosh is designed to work directly with the software that runs on the service’s mainframes. As a result, the personal computer is more than a terminal. It’s actually a peer in the communications loop, which makes the service easy to use.


CompuServe requires a $39 start-up kit and costs $12.50 an hour for the basic service. There are surcharges for some of its databases.

CompuServe’s new software follows a trend that was started by several of the company’s competitors. Prodigy, MacNet and PC-Link already came with software designed to make them easy to use.

Prodigy’s software, for example, completely takes over your PC, presenting the user with graphics, extra large type and easy-to-remember commands. The service has been criticized, however, because its software does not allow users to save information on their hard disk or transfer information from their PC’s disk to the service’s electronic mail. All messages must be typed in at the keyboard.

Prodigy offers travel information, headline news and access to “experts” in such areas as fitness (Jane Fonda), movies (Gene Siskel), personal finance (Sylvia Porter) and computers (Stewart Alsop and yours truly. I write three on-line columns each week.) The experts no longer provide personal responses via the system’s electronic mail service but do answer public messages posted on bulletin boards.


A Prodigy start-up kit costs $49 and includes three months of free use. Subsequent use is billed at $10 a month, with no charge for on-line time. Prodigy draws additional revenue by displaying advertisements at the bottom of the screen and by allowing merchants to sell products and services on-line.

An Innovative Approach

MacNet from Connect Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., provides an extremely innovative approach to on-line information. The Macintosh version behaves exactly as regular Macintosh software does, even while you are connected with the mainframe. Data is displayed in multiple windows, and you can easily copy and paste information from the MacNet screen to any other Macintosh application.

An IBM PC version called PC/MacNet runs under Microsoft’s Windows operating environment and thus is very similar to the Mac version.


MacNet is aimed at business and professional users and has no games or entertainment features. It does provide excellent electronic mail, as well as various news services. Reading news on MacNet is a joy. In addition to the latest news, the past two week’s news stories are available in “folders” that are visible on the screen. You can access news from any day by using the mouse to click on its folder. You then get a list of headlines and can read a story by clicking the headline.

Everything you do during a session remains on the screen, in a window, which can be viewed by selecting it from a special menu on the top of the screen. The service is so “Mac like” that it’s easy to forget that you’re on-line.

MacNet and PC/MacNet require a $75 start-up kit that includes software and your account number. Usage costs $8 a hour during weekdays and $4 evenings and weekends.

PC-Link, from Quantum Computer Services, offers news from USA Today along with business news, stock updates, travel, electronic mail, an encyclopedia, software library and all the usual on-line features. It uses Tandy’s DeskMate interface which, like Microsoft Windows, works with a mouse and pull-down menus.


It’s extremely easy and pleasant to use with screens that are colorful and easy to read. The start-up kit, available at any Radio Shack store, costs $30. There is a $10 monthly fee, but there are no hourly fees for evening and weekend use.

A premium service, called PC-Link Plus, costs 10 cents per minute. There is a 15-cents-a-minute surcharge when using the service during the business day. It works with any IBM compatible PC and can be purchased at any Radio Shack store. Quantum offers similar services for the Commodore 64/128 and Apple II. A Macintosh version is in development.

Computer File welcomes readers’ comments but regrets that the authors cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Lawrence J. Magid, P.O. Box 620477, Woodside, Calif. 94062, or contact the L. Magid account on the MCI electronic mail system.




Features: The nation’s oldest and largest surviving on-line information service, CompuServe offers more than 1,400 databases. They include Associated Press news reports, daily computer industry news updates, weather, home shopping and games.

Cost: $40 for a start-up kit, which includes two free hours of use. Hourly rates are $12.50 for 1,200 and 2,400 bits per second (bps) and $6 for use at 300 bps. Additional charges for some services.

Requirements: Any personal computer or computer terminal equipped with a modem and communications software. Optional “CompuServe Information Manager” software, when it becomes available, will require either an IBM PC or an Apple Macintosh.


Address: 5000 Arlington Center Blvd., Columbus, Ohio, 43220. Phone: (800) 848-8199.


Features: Prodigy is a service from Sears and IBM designed primarily for home use. It offers electronic mail, home shopping, weather maps and headline news, along with special interest reports on such topics as fitness, computers and travel.

Cost: For $50, buyers get a start-up kit with software and three months’ use. Monthly fee is $10, and there is no additional charge for on-line use.


Requirements: An IBM PC or compatible equipped with at 512K of memory and the ability to display graphics. A 1,200 or 2,400 bps modem.

Address: 445 Hamilton Ave., White Plains, N.Y. 10601. Phone: (800) 822-6922.


Features: A business information service, MacNet offers special-interest information “forums,” general news and news for computer users. The displays and menus are similar to those of most Macintosh (and Microsoft Windows) programs, making it very easy to use.


Requirements: The Apple Macintosh version requires a Macintosh computer with at least 512K of memory and a hard disk or two floppy disks. The IBM PC Version, called PC/MacNet, requires an IBM compatible with 512K of memory, a hard disk and the ability to display graphics. Requires a 1,200, 2,400 or 9,600 bps modem.

Cost: A start-up kit costs $75, but owners of IBM compatibles who do not already have Microsoft Windows pay $99 for a kit that includes necessary Windows code. Kit includes one hour of free use. Usage costs $8 an hour during the business day and $4 evenings, weekends and holidays. There are additional charges for some services and for the quantity of information transmitted.

Address: Connect Inc., 10161 Bubb Road, Cupertino, Calif. 95014. Phone: (800) 262-2638.



Features: PC-Link, from Quantum Computer Services, offers news, stock updates, travel, electronic mail, an encyclopedia and a software library. It comes with easy-to-use software that controls all aspects of communications with the host mainframe.

Requires: An IBM PC or compatible with 384K of RAM and a 300, 1,200 or 2,400 bps modem.

Cost: The $30 start-up kit includes a month of free usage. $10 monthly usage charge. No hourly fees for basic service, but premium services or use during the business day costs extra.

Address: Quantum Computer Services, 8619 Westwood Center Drive, Vienna, Va. 22180. Phone: (800) 458-8532.


Los Angeles Times