My 8/23/09 Missoulian column
To go sideways a bit in this brief history of the Internet, the general public gained commercial access to the Internet in the early 1990’s through commercial services such as Compuserve, AOL (America On Line) and Prodigy.
These commercial services popularized electronic mail and the Web with their own browsers for the public who didn’t have access to the Internet through work or with a university or government. These services helped pry open the door to the Internet for the public, and quickly.
The big three – Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy – are all milestones in the history of the Internet, but I seldom used those services myself.
I’ll admit to be something of a snob back then when it came to commercial services. I had Internet access through different universities, and I thought the “real” Internet was something non-profit, to be used with plain text email and the Mosaic or Netscape browser.
But the concept of “forums” is generally credited to Compuserve in particular, and those forums were used at the time for tech support and chat groups. They were hugely popular, with hundreds of thousands of users, and other services soon copied the online “forum” concept.
The competition between such services was fierce. I remember getting (each week it seemed) a CD in the mail from AOL, offering a hundred or a thousand free online hours in order to get people to sign up. In the 1990’s, it’s estimated that AOL mailed more than 660 million CDs to try and draw users away from other services.
As a result of the cheery AOL greeting, there’s a cultural meme that goes “You’ve got Mail!” and a movie titled the same.
Prodigy was second only to Compuserve, and as late as 2000 had an all time high membership. But like any high tech business, times change quickly and buyouts are common.
Over the years, AOL bought Compuserve, CompuServe became part of Netscape, AOL was spun off by Time Warner, and Prodigy went to AT&T.
AOL finally pulled the plug on Compuserve just before the 4th of July this year. AOL itself was spun off by Time Warner this last May, but continues as a Web mail portal.
The old Compuserve numerical email addresses, as well as Prodigy email, still continue to work, I suppose until the last few users move on in the fast paced history of the Internet.