This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Coming Online

compuserve

September 24, 1979:  CompuServe Comes Online

On this day CompuServe launches the first consumer-oriented online information service, which they called MicroNET. This marked the first time a consumer had access to services such as e-mail. As the service became a hit, they renamed the service CompuServe Information Service, or CIS.

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How short our memories are. Before everyone connected to one massive Internet, a variety of smaller commercial online services with names like CompuServe, GEnie, Prodigy, Delphi and, of course, America Online (AOL) ruled the roost. Some were launched as long ago as the late 1970s, and many were text-based with nary a graphic to be found. Each charged hourly or monthly fees to a national (and sometimes international) audience in exchange for access to its private network.

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Jeff Wilkins

Jeff Wilkins

CompuServe Information Service was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969 as a subsidiary of Golden United Life Insurance. Jeffrey Wilkins, the son-in-law of Golden United founder Harry Gard, Sr., is widely credited as the first president of CompuServe.

Initially, CompuServe sold its excess computer capacity to other corporations, but in 1978 it began providing services to the owners of personal computers. The goal was to squeeze profits out of underutilized assets by putting time-sharing computers to greater use at night, when they were frequently idle.

CompuServe was the first online service to offer Internet connectivity, albeit limited access, as early as 1989 when it connected its proprietary e-mail service to allow incoming and outgoing messages to other Internet e-mail addresses.

CompuServe began offering electronic mail capabilities and technical support to commercial customers in 1978 under the name Infoplex, and was also a pioneer in the real-time chat market with its CB Simulator service introduced in 1980. CompuServe also introduced a number of online games.

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By the mid-1980′s CompuServe was the largest consumer information service in the world and half their revenue came from CIS. In 1989 CompuServe connected its proprietary e-mail system to the Internet e-mail system, making it one of the first commercial Internet services.

In 1992, CompuServe hosted the first known WYSIWYG e-mail content and forum posts. Fonts, colors and emoticons were encoded into 7-bit text-based messages via the CompuServe Navigator software, which ran on DOS, Apple Macintosh and early Windows 3.1 systems.

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Access fees depended on your modem’s rate: 300 bits per second cost $6 per hour, 2400 bps cost $12, and so on. (2400 bps seemed lightning fast back then but is inconceivably slow now.)

During the early 1990s the hourly rate fell from over $10 an hour to $1.95 an hour. In March 1992, it launched online signups with credit card based payments and a desktop application to connect online and check emails. In April 1995, CompuServe topped three million members, still the largest online service provider, and launched its NetLauncher service, providing WWW access capability via the Spry Mosaic browser.

AOL, however, introduced a far cheaper flat-rate, unlimited-time, advertisement-supported price plan in the US to compete with CompuServe’s hourly charges. In conjunction with AOL’s marketing campaigns, this caused a significant loss of customers until CompuServe responded with a similar plan of its own at $24.95 per month in late 1997.

The newer version of CompuServe, known as CompuServe 2000, remains unaffected and AOL has said that it will continue to operate.

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